A New Year of Cheese

I drink sparkling wine because it has the ability to make even a random Tuesday feel festive. With New Year’s just around the corner, take this opportunity to pursue a cheese line-up entirely driven by bubbly. Particularly if you’re considering entertaining a crowd, in which case you can create stations around your house (even in my smallest apartment I’d have a counter station, a dining table station and a coffee table station; never mind this was all within 600 square feet). Each station offers a different pairing, guests can circulate, and a few handwritten signs describing the offerings provide a launchpad for food and travel chit chat. 

Conventional wisdom says that sparkling wine (ideally Champagne, but equally so Cava or Prosecco for the more budget minded) should be paired with triple crème cheeses. These Brie cousins are cream-enriched and lovingly likened to whipped butter that you’re entitled to eat with your fingers. The idea here is that especially fatty, and generally salty cheese, is cut by the wine’s effervescence, essentially scrubbing your palate clean for more cheese. 

In fact, all triple crèmes are not created equal. The rind type makes a significant difference in the final flavor profile, and thus offers us multiple options for drink. The most traditional triple crèmes have a rind made of the mold penicilium candidum: this is the pristine fluffy white skin made famous by Brie. French stalwarts like St. Andre, Brillat Savarin and Pierre Robert, or new American classics like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam and Marin French Triple Crème Brie are all examples. Their texture tends to be silken and airy, dissolving instantaneously on the tongue. Flavorwise, it’s all about cream and salt with, perhaps, an edge of white button mushroom. Earlier this week a friend brought over a Brillat Savarin whose rind was already quite thick and separating from the interior paste, usually a sign that the cheese will be ammoniated and past its prime. While these rinds are edible, and I usually recommend them, in this case we simply pulled back the drooping skin. The guts of the cheese were brilliant and people wound up eating them by the spoonful. These are easy cheeses to like and Prosecco’s coarser bubble and fruit forwardness are companionable. Though the wine is available is varying elvels of sweetness, dry is best here.

Then there are the triple crèmes that are a bit more wrinkly, their rinds more yellow. Texturally they resemble a just this side of too-wet cheesecake, the flavors are more acidic, leaving your mouth watering, but reminding you of yeast and nuts. These cheeses are made with the yeast geotrichum, they’re messier than their bright white brothers, and arguably more complex. The French versions tend to come from Burgundy, as in Delice de Bourgogne. Vermont Creamery’s Cremont, while technically a double crème, is a fantastic American alternative.  French cremant, sparkling wines from outside the AOC Champagne region, offer fantastic value and excellent quality. The rosè Cremant d’Alsace offers fresh red fruit and creamy bubble that offsets the cheese’s earthy finish.

My consistently favorite pairing with Champagne falls far from the butterbombs. It’s a glorious illustration of pairing like flavors in an effort to amplify their sameness. The aged mountain cheeses of France and Switzerland, with their dense-yet-elastic paste and flavor layers of brown butter and roasted hazelnuts are happy bedfellows with the perfectly golden toastiness of good Champagne. Its relentless yet finely delicate bubble manages to respect the cheese’s texture while loosening and lightening it in the mouth. Comtè tends to be sweeter and “Swissier,” Gruyere nuttier, Appenzeller or Challerhocker spicier. Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve or Thistle Hill’s Tarentaise preserve these qualities in the new world. 

The regional pairing of Parmigiano Reggiano and Lambrusco is an instructive model for other “grana” style cheeses. Dense and waxen with intermittent crunch, Parm is actually quite acidic. It’s not butterscotchy and candied the way aged Goudas can be, and that mouthwatery edge is necessary to keep the Lambrusco from coming off like Manischewitz. Other choices that work well are Grana Padano and Piave. Sardinia offers up the delicious mixed milk called Podda Classico. A big, broad bubble mines the crayony paste, and the pairing is reminiscent (in the best way) of peanut butter and jelly.

Last of all is a proposal that may make serious wine folks cringe, but it’s delicious every time, and especially crowd friendly. Any one of the world’s great rinded blues, like French Fourme d’Ambert, English Stilton (or better, the raw milk Stichelton) or Jasper Hill Farm’s Bayley Hazen Blue (recently awarded the “Best Raw Milk Cheese in the World” honor) does well here, or a mellower foil-wrapped choice like Point Reyes Bay Blue. The more peppery blues like Spanish Cabrales mow the wine over.  

That wine is the frilly, peachy Moscato d’Asti which, alongside fudgy blues with earthen edge, plays the role that dripping autumn pears might otherwise hold. That it’s semisweet is helpful too, that succulent sugar offsetting blue’s elevated salinity.