Hard, soft, blue, goat? Which cheeses do you choose, and do you pick a wine for each or try to find one that matches everything? Tina Gellie sat down with Gerard Basset MW MS OBE to find out how this restaurateur and Best Sommelier in the World gets it right every time.
And Basset knows a thing or two about the subject as Best Sommelier in the World 2010 – a title that caps off a remarkable career that includes achieving the Master of Wine and Master Sommelier qualifications, and an MBA in wine – not to mention an OBE.
As owner, with his wife Nina, of Hotel TerraVina in England’s New Forest, he’s also a dab hand at putting together cheese boards and advising on wine matches for restaurant guests, as well as selecting his own for dinners with family and friends.
‘Cheese and wine – find any frenchman who doesn’t love these; who doesn’t always have them in the house?’ he laughs. ‘And for a dinner party or Christmas, one, two or three good cheeses to offer your guests is, well, almost essential, no?’
Basset’s ‘desert-island cheeseboard’ would have a trio: a 12-month-old nutty Comté (France’s most popular cheese) for the hard; a ripe, buttery stilton for the blue; and a St-Marcellin for the soft: a creamy raw cow’s milk cheese with a very high fat content.
But what wines to pair with such different cheeses? Do you pick three? One? And do you pick the wine first to match the cheese or vice versa?
‘It’s very simple and it starts with one rule,’ says Basset. ‘Choose whether you want to give the lead role to the wine or to the cheese. If it’s the cheese, pick a wine with less character that will just complement it in the background. If you want the wine to be the star, go easy on the forcefulness of the cheese. After that, there are rules you can break but there are still certain things you need to have in mind.’
Knowing the rules
One, he explains, is the age of the cheese and the wine. ‘Most cheeses become richer and more pungent in aroma and flavour with age, whereas most mature wines are the opposite. So as a general rule, don’t serve your best bottle of 1982 Bordeaux or Grand Cru Burgundy with a strong or mature cheese. Epoisses with red Burgundy is a popular match, but if you serve a delicate Clos du Tart then you will destroy the wine completely. Think instead about a good village wine, like a Beaune, from a top grower, with about seven or eight years of age.’
Another is the likes and dislikes of you and your guests. ‘Serving only one cheese is completely acceptable – say a perfect Brie or beautiful Stilton. In fact, it is easier to match one wine to one cheese than a whole board, but you need to be sure everyone will like that cheese. With a board, the wine match might be harder but there’s more choice.’
He said a restaurant cheese board would generally offer a range of hard, soft, blue and goat’s cheeses, often with a few semi-soft, washed-rind and ewe/sheep’s milk cheeses too. While most dinner party hosts wouldn’t go to such an extent, a hard, soft and a blue offers plenty of options, especially if one of the three also happens to be a goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese.
Regionality also plays a part – pairing wines and cheeses from the same area – but Basset says rules can happily be broken here, as with the case of his Christmas Stilton with Sauternes. ‘It’s a good guide,’ he says. ‘Think of Crottin de Chavignol with Sancerre – it’s hard to better that. Or a Vin Jaune with Comté, which is another favourite and which we sometimes include here at the restaurant on a tasting menu.
He says it is logical that cheese will have some affinity with the local wine, but the key point to remember is that most regions have many examples of each, therefore there is no guarantee they will all match each other – or your own tastes. ‘The romantic nature of our minds means we see a cheese, like an Epoisses, and a wine, like a red Burgundy. They are from the same region – maybe you are on holiday and happen to eat them together. You want them to go, so they do. But perhaps that Epoisses actually goes better with Marc de Bourgogne from the same region, or maybe Pinot Gris from Alsace? Rules are meant to be broken!’
Basset’s Christmas cracker
‘There is a delicious cheese and wine pairing I will always remember. It was maybe 2005 or 2006, but the taste is still there. I always buy a Stilton at Christmas – it’s a special part of traditional festivities. This one was a wonderful wheel: smooth, buttery and creamy with the distinctive green mould. I opened a Château Guiraud 1990, so it was about 15 years old or so, and it was amazing. The wine was developed, but not too much, so it already had wonderful aromas and a rich, luscious palate but still with great acidity. Perfect match!’
Written by Tina Gellie
Wine guide to cheese styles
Try: Comté, Emmental, Grana Padano, Gruyère, Lincolnshire Poacher, Manchego (sheep), Montgomery’s Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino (sheep)
‘This is where you can go for a rich, dry white wine or a light- to medium-bodied red wine, as their tannins and weight will work well with the structure of the cheese,’ says Basset. He suggests a Bordeaux blend, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Nebbiolo or Rioja for the reds, or a vin jaune, white Burgundy or a Condrieu for white options. ‘For the easiest cheese match with your wine, look for one that is relatively young and relatively hard – not too much strength or age. As the cheese gets older and loses moisture, this accentuates the flavour, saltiness and fattiness. Older cheddar and Parmesan can have a lot of character, so be careful. You don’t want a fresh cheese, but equally one that’s not 24 months old.’
Try: Brie, Camembert, Chaource, Neufchâtel, Tunworth, St-Marcellin, St-Félicien, Vacherin, Waterloo
‘Be careful here, as many of these cheeses have big personalities, especially as they age,’ warns Basset. ‘Even Brie and Camembert, which in the UK are mainly eaten far too young so people think they have no flavour.’ Here he suggests a Beaujolais or light Pinot Noir, or whites with character: Vouvray, a smaragd Grüner Veltliner, or an older Hunter Semillon. ‘Wines that have good acidity to cut through the high fat content of these wines would work well too, like Champagne or other sparkling wines, or Chablis.’ His favourite is St-Marcellin or its larger cousin St-Félicien. ‘Wonderfully creamy and not too strong but very indulgent. I’d drink it with a weighty white – a Marsanne or Roussanne.’
Try: Bleu d’Auvergne, Bleu des Causses, Cabrales, Gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort (sheep)
‘The classic match here, which everyone knows, is sweet wine,’ says Basset. ‘It works particularly well if the cheese is creamy. With Stilton, for example, you get the complement from the creamy texture of the cheese and structure of the wine, as well as the contrast from the salty and sweet. Personally, I prefer Stilton to Roquefort for a cheeseboard as Roquefort is often too salty for a good wine match.’ He suggests any botrytis-style sweet wine with good balancing acidity, such as Sauternes or Montbazillac. ‘And I wouldn’t want a very old wine – maybe something between five and 15 years old.’ He also advises to avoid the sweetest styles of wine, such as trockenbeerenauslese, Pedro Ximénez Sherry or Rutherglen Muscat. ‘Leave them for pudding. If the wine is too sweet it unbalances everything and takes over.’
Goat: Crottin de Chavignol, Picodon, Ragstone, Tymsboro, Valençay
Sheep: Azeitão, Ossau-Iraty, Roncal, Serra de Estrela, Wigmore
‘The classic pairing is Crottin de Chavignol with Sancerre, and most goat’s cheeses will match well with Sauvignon Blancs. But you can break the rules here, as long as you stick with a fresh wine with lively acidity, such as Albariño, dry Riesling, white Bordeaux or Chenin Blanc. For slightly older cheeses, I’d go for a richer Rhône white.’ Basset says sheep’s cheeses can stand up to some rustic reds, southern Rhônes and rosados or reds from Spain, but that it is best to avoid very mature sheep or goat cheeses as when they mature they can be very strong, with an ammonia character that overpowers everything.
Try: Epoisses, Langres, Livarot, Mahon, Maroilles, Munster, Pont L’Eveque, Stinking Bishop, Taleggio
‘I’m not a great fan of very smelly cheese,’ Basset admits. ‘If I’m in Burgundy and someone gave me a bit of Epoisses I would enjoy it, but I would not buy it. If you want one for your cheeseboard, try to choose a younger cheese whose character will not destroy the wine.’ Epoisses and red Burgundy is a classic regional match, but Basset is not convinced. ‘I’d prefer an exuberant wine that stands up better. These are not cheeses for Chablis or mature Burgundy – any subtlety will be destroyed! Munster and Gewurztraminer is a classic match and would work with other washed-rind cheeses as well. Rich Alsace Pinot Gris or other spicy, aromatic wines are also good. Maybe a spicy Spanish rosé, or an old-fashioned Rioja with soft tannins – but not your best bottle of 30-year-old gran reserva.’
All for one, one for all
If all that sounds too complex, and you just want one wine to match a whole cheeseboard, Basset advises that you look to fortified wines – the ultimate after-dinner companion. ‘I would immediately suggest amontillado Sherry, Rivesaltes, tawny Port or Madeira. They work very well with all cheeses as they aren’t too delicately flavoured and their taste profile is similar to the accompaniments you will serve with the cheese: nuts, dried fruit, the spices in chutney. Plus, they are crowd-pleasing wines.’ Again, he recommends not uncorking that 1963 vintage Port you’ve been hanging on to – save that for a digestif. ‘Choose a good bottle of LBV – it still has the sweet fruit you want from a vintage, but without the expense. Otherwise an amontillado, or a 10-year-old Rivesaltes or Madeira – wines with enough personality in their sweetness or nuttiness to offset even the trickiest cheeses.’
But after all that, Basset has a final piece of advice: don’t worry. ‘At the end of the day, food and wine should be fun. Use a bit of common sense: any Decanter reader will know not to serve a Barolo with a Camembert, but other than that it’s hard to get it really wrong. You get it right by enjoying the occasion with your family and friends.’
Cheese and wine: before or after pudding?
Basset, ever the diplomat, says he follows both his native and adopted countries’ practices. ‘I’ve been in England a long time, so I do both. There’s no rule: whatever works for you.’ He does admit that the concept of finishing your savoury courses to have a sweet dessert and then going back to savoury again with cheese is ‘illogical and quite shocking’ to most French people. ‘But that’s not to say it’s wrong. I quite like to have my dessert and coffee after my main course and then rest a while and have some cheese with another wine later.’
He says he was told the reason behind the British tradition was that gentry would have ‘tea’ in the afternoon, when sweet things were served. Later on they would have a plate of ‘supper’, which was often cheese. When dinner parties became popular the order continued: both ladies and gentlemen enjoyed the sweet course after the mains, but then the men would leave to play cards, smoke, drink Port and eat Stilton. ‘In France we didn’t have the concept of “tea”, and because we like to end the meal on something sweet, it naturally evolved that cheese came before dessert.’ This may be the reason why many people feel that heavy, tannic red wines – those you would often have with your meat course – are what you should serve with cheese, as you could finish off what you had left in your glass.
But Basset says the one of the main benefits of having a cheeseboard last is that it is more sociable – enabling guests to relax, chat and linger over plates and glasses that don’t need to be cleared as they nibble at cheeses with their wine.