A Thousand Things About Cheese
Nothing goes better with a raging fire and mistletoe than port and a good, rich cheese.
Thursday, December 26, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Taste Treat: Hundreds of cheeses await your palate at the Cheese Shop.
What is rich, with a berry nose, spirit-y overtones and can pack a mean punch-besides your Uncle Ambrose? How about picking up a bottle of port this holiday season? In front of a crackling fire, with a complement of exquisite, artisan-quality cheese, it is a feast day finale wor- thy of becoming an established tradition.
Although Grandfather Coburn was a teetotaler, family legend has it that it was one of his uncles who began doing business with the winemakers of Portugal''s rugged Douro Valley in what would grow to be one of the UK''s most noted names in port production, Cockburn''s Special Reserve. Weary of correcting the too-often bastardized pronunciation, ol'' Grandad edited out the silent "c-k", so that he could again enjoy his surname without feeling compared to a particularly bad rash. Thanks, Gramps, and here''s to the port that launched a thousand sips!
Like sherry, port is a fortified wine, discovered almost by accident. When red table wine was exported from Portugal, it was found that throwing some brandy into the mix managed to keep the liquor stable on its seafaring journey, effectively stopping the fermentation process and adding sweetness, as well as a little more kick. Usually port is around 20 percent alcohol, which makes it better on the dessert end of things than as an aperitif, and wanting for a wee morsel to go with it.
The perfect port and cheese pairing deserves some consideration. "Keeping everything in balance is the objective," says cheesemonger Kent Torrey, proprietor of the Cheese Shop in Carmel. "A strong, full-bodied port stands up well to a full-flavored cheese." And this side of the Rapture, the combo that looms ethereal is a vintage port with Stilton. Vintage port is the product of what is deemed an exceptional year''s harvest, yielding a wine that ages well and can look forward to a long life. Most vintage ports are aged a relatively short time in barrels-usually two or three years-before bottling, though "late-bottled" vintage ports stay longer in the barrel. Don''t be surprised to find a price tag of $50 or more for the former and about half of that for the latter; you''re paying for their time. Both styles will appreciate in complexity as they mature.
Which brings us to its date waiting in front of the fireplace- Stilton. Just like France has sole title to the champagne that bears the same name as the winemaking region, (everywhere else, by law, it better be labeled "sparkling wine"), England has what is essentially the appellation d''origine controlle on its famed Stilton, the pride of the rolling Shires country. They say that it''s the coal and iron deposits lying rich beneath the soil that causes the blue-veining in this full-cream, cow''s milk cheese.
You can spot a good quality Stilton by looking for a crusty brown rind covering an ivory interior that is firm enough to cut. But if you''re not sure, ask. Most good cheese counters are eager to offer a sample, as is Torrey''s. The fun part comes in finding that the Stilton on your plate and the port in your glass might just hit some of the same notes. Both are rich, honeyed and leathery, coming together in a pitch-perfect, five-part harmony.
Just as California continues to prove that American wines aren''t to be trifled with, so may follow the late-blooming stature of American artisanal and farmstead cheeses. (Both refer to cheese that is naturally aged and made according to traditional methods, with "farmstead" cheese produced from the farm''s own milk.) Thus, the quest for the perfect port and cheese pairing shouldn''t be considered only a Euro-sport. Napa Valley''s Prager Port Works is alone worth making the trip north: A bottle of Prager''s 10-year old tawny and a hunk of Vermont aged Gouda, studded with cardamom seeds, made an accidental match that on one blustery, uninviting fall day set for me a new picnic standard. (Tawny ports are aged in wood at least five years. Aged tawnies are at least as old as the label indicates. Both styles are tawny in color.)
Monterey County has a few fine port producers as well. Organic grower and producer Heller Estates and Durney Vineyards, in a very California twist, uses 100 percent Merlot grapes for their Toby''s Vintage Merlot Port 2001. The port is named after the estate''s proprietress, Toby Heller. A bottle of Toby''s and a wedge of Pt. Reyes Original Blue is the New World''s nod to a classic. "It has a very nice extract of plum and dark chocolate," says Heller/Durney winemaker Rich Tanguay, making for a nice fit with the creamy sweetness of what the American Cheese Society has named 2001''s "Best Blue Cheese".
Paraiso Springs Vineyards in Soledad is known for its Souzao Port, a young, ruby port made from the winery''s estate-grown souzao grapes. In six more years, winemaker David Fleming points out, they''ll have their own 10-year vintage tawny. To celebrate that milestone, I''d pull out a block of Widmer''s Cheese Cellars Wisconsin two-year Cheddar. Or maybe some Vella Mezzo-Secco, from Sonoma. Some toasted hazelnuts, maybe, and some good chocolate. Thoughtfully chosen, consumed in front of a well-laid fire, these are the components of a contented winter evening''s celebration.
Catherine Coburn is a member of the American Cheese Society and author of The Adventures of Monterey Jack.