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Cheese and wine: pairings and mispairings

Family tradition often dictates that a good bottle of red wine should be opened when the cheeseboard comes out. Big mistake: tannins turn bitter when combined with lactic notes.  This is not the case for white wines, which come recommended by master-cheesemaker Pierre Avon. Moreover, Moselle wines make a particularly good pairing.

Old habits die hard. This could even be described as their defining feature! However, it’s never too late to do things properly, and moreover, to allow ourselves to be pleasantly surprised. That’s right – red wine is not actually the best match for cheese. Only certain, mainly lighter varieties should be paired with it, explains master-cheesemaker, Pierre Avon, owner of the Cave à Fromages, a Luxembourg institution based at 1 rue Bender in the Bonnevoie district of Luxembourg City. “It’s basically only the soft, bloomy-rind cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, Chaource and Brillat-Savarin that make good pairings for it,” he explains. “And whatever you do, don’t open a red that is too potent: the tannins do not go at all well with the salt and lactic notes. Only certain cheese specialties should be paired with it, such as tomme with truffles or tomme with Barolo (editor’s note: an Italian wine), because in these cases, the wine is being paired with the ingredient giving the cheese its flavour, rather than the cheese itself.”

In contrast, it transpires that white wines make sublime pairings. And it just so happens that whites from the Luxembourg Moselle are the perfect match. Pierre Avon admits a penchant for one estate in particular: the Maison Viticole Schmit-Fohl in Ahn. “Armand Schmit has recently passed on the estate to his sons, Nicolas and Mathieu, who have converted it to organic production,” explains Pierre, now a family friend. “Their craftsmanship is exceptional and I love the pure and precise wines they produce! I offer their entire range in the store as each bottle makes a perfect pairing for one of my cheeses.”

Let’s start with Riesling, the king of grape varieties. “This Wormeldange Koeppchen is very mineral and very dry. Its character can be brought out by pairing it with a cheese that is also slightly dry and salty. For instance, a vine wood ash-ripened Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese goes very nicely with it.” Auxerrois also makes a very good pairing. “This grape variety, which is virtually exclusively grown in Luxembourg these days, produces balanced wines that err neither towards acidity nor sweetness. They go very well with a wide variety of cheeses.”

Riesling also makes a wonderful pairing for cooked, pressed cheeses such as Comté or the magnificent Beaufort d’Alpage, which is ripened over long periods. “I go to the mountains in summer to pick these cheeses and mark the ones I want, so they can be put aside for me. They are stored in a cellar for at least a year. This one is two and a half years old,” says Pierre Avon in reference to one particularly mouth-watering example. “I love the crunch of the grains of salt that appear due to evaporation during ripening, combined with this Koeppchen Riesling’s distinct and saline aromas.”

As for the Ahn Göllebour Pinot Gris, the master-cheesemaker particularly enjoys it with a Welsche tomme. “This is an uncooked, pressed Alsatian cheese. This tomme is neither too salty nor too floral, and therefore goes perfectly with this Pinot Gris. A Pinot Blanc would also be very suitable.”

Although Chardonnay is now an increasingly common grape variety in Luxembourg, it was Armand Schmit who planted the first vine stocks on Vogelsang near Ahn in 1986. Not just any cheese can be paired with this wine that has developed a buttery quality through its time spent in barriques. “I’d pair this with a Brillat-Savarin,” says Pierre Avon. This cheese is a cream-enriched Brie. Its highly lactic creaminess is an excellent match for the Chardonnay’s buttery character. Here, we’re playing on the pairing of related flavours.”

In a similar way to port, Gewürztraminer is often considered a good match for blue-veined cheeses. However, Pierre Avon takes a more nuanced view: “the highly floral dimension of this Göllebour Gewürztraminer, and in particular those rose petal aromas, need to be offset.  So, I’d pair it with a gorgeous Tomme aux Fleurs – that would work very nicely together!  For a blue like a Roquefort or Stilton, I’d favour a late-harvest Gewürztraminer, which is more concentrated and sweeter. In this case, the pairing draws on the contrast between the sweetness of the wine and the saltiness of the cheese: it’s just magnificent!”

Fizz can also be served with a cheeseboard. “For instance, a crémant would go very nicely with this Boerenkaas, a Dutch farmhouse Gouda, which is over three years old.” Sparkling wine also brings out the saltiness of a Comté. And as a pairing for a rich and creamy Chaource, fizz adds a hit of freshness in the mouth!

He herded flocks of sheep to the summer pastures

Pierre Avon’s Cave à Fromages is much more than a shop selling quality dairy products. It offers a range of 160 magnificent cheeses made by 76 artisanal producers hand-picked by the master-cheesemaker and ripened in his own cellar in Bonnevoie.

Pierre Avon himself is a fount of knowledge who loves talking about his cheeses. He knows absolutely everything there is to know about his products and the animals that produce them. There’s a good reason for that. Before becoming a cheesemaker, he was… a shepherd! “I herded flocks of sheep to summer pastures in the Queyras (editor’s note: in the French Alps), Col du Pourtalet (editor’s note: in the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain) and Lubéron (editor’s note: in Provence).”

After deciding to devote his life to cheese, he travelled the length and breadth of France as a journeyman. He came to Luxembourg some twenty years ago to develop the Kamp-Koehler store before setting up the Cave à Fromage in 2008. This now includes the Cave à Manger, which serves a range of dainty delights. Customers can also take full advantage of a large new terrace surrounding the shop on the corner of Rue du Fort Wallis and Rue Bender. This is a lovely venue!

Golden rules for the perfect cheeseboard

Composition

• There are seven cheese families: bloomy-rind cheeses (Brie, Camembert, Brillat-Savarin, etc.), soft washed-rind cheeses (Munster, Époisses, Livarot, etc.),  uncooked, pressed cheeses (Saint-Nectaire, Tomme, Reblochon, etc.), cooked, pressed cheeses (Comté, Beaufort, Abondance, etc.), blue-veined cheeses (Roquefort, blue chesses, Stilton, etc.), goat cheeses (Selles-sur-Cher, Sainte-Maure de Touraine, Crottin de Chavignol, etc.) and flavoured cheeses (Puits du Luxembourg, Tomme with Barolo, Tomme with truffles, etc.). “If you want your cheeseboard to cover the full range, pick a cheese from each family!” advises Pierre Avon.

Order for serving cheese

• You should always move from the mildest to the strongest cheeses, which generally means starting with the saltiest to the driest varieties. Obviously, no single wine can be paired with all the cheeses on a full cheeseboard. But don’t panic: “Contrary to what many people think, it’s possible to switch from one colour of wine to another,” affirms Pierre Avon. “There’s no problem with starting with a dry white wine, moving on to a light red, and ending on a sweeter white. You just need to ensure that they are served in order of potency.”

If opening two or three bottles for one cheeseboard seems excessive, it’s best to pick the wine you’d like to serve first and then choose the cheeses. For instance, with a dry Riesling, you can’t go wrong with several goat cheeses, a Comté and a Reblochon!

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