Despite my wine background and despite how much of my paycheck I set aside to fulfill my cheese cravings, I still have yet to master the art of wine and cheese pairings.
I decided to broaden my cheese-ducation and called upon James Ayers, master fromager at gourmet shop Atelier Fine Foods, to help me navigate the dizzying world of French cheeses. The storefront is a gourmand’s paradise in the heart of Yountville, one of Napa’s northern towns. It stands adjacent to the JCB Tasting Salon, where Jean-Charles Boisset offers wines from both his California and French portfolios, including his eponymous sparkling wines. Since opening in February of 2016, the Atelier has filled its shelves with some of the world’s most coveted epicurean delights—mustard from Burgundy, California caviar, vinegars, olive oils, and my beloved Angelina hot chocolate (a product for which I scour Charles de Gaulle airport each time I pass through). But beyond the various accompaniments, one display has continued to draw me into the Atelier time after time this past year: the cheese case.
I brought the wines, Boisset brought the bubbles, and Ayers selected cheeses to match with each pour. The three of us sat down, and after two hours, I was reminded of my first time opening a wine book: numbed by the overload of information, and intoxicated by the ambition to learn more, this time about cheese. Here are five pairings you have to try whether in France or feeling francophilic at home:
The wine: JCB Crémant de Bourgogne No. 21 NV (Burgundy, France) $25
The cheese: Crémeux des Cîteaux
“We view bubbles as preparing your palate. . . . It brings vitality and vivacity to your mouth,” Boisset tells me. And thus we begin the tasting by popping open a bottle of his JCB Crémant de Bourgogne No. 21. Crémant de Bourgogne is a French sparkling wine produced with the same techniques as champagne and made with the same grape varieties, but made just south in neighboring Burgundy.
Ayers opts for a Burgundian triple cream as the first cheese of the flight, specifically the Crémeux des Cîteaux from renowned affineur Rodolphe Le Meunier. It’s essentially a smaller version of the more famous Brillat-Savarin, but Ayers calls the Crémeux des Cîteaux “Brie on steroids” for its oozy creaminess. Alongside the bubbles, the cheese creates a yin-and-yang effect. The JCB Crémant de Bourgogne No. 21 thrills with its buoyant, pithy flavors—crunchy green apple, lemon rind, and white rose. “The bubbles bounce the fat right off [the tongue],” says Ayers. The wine keeps the triple cream from weighing down your appetite, while the cheese broadens the crémant by illuminating some of its more almond-powder, doughy notes.
The wine: Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2016 (Loire Valley, France) $29
The cheese: Couronne de Fontenay
The Loire Valley is often referred to by its nickname “The Garden of France,” celebrated for its bucolic, castle-dotted landscape as well as its bountiful vinous and gastronomic contributions. Two of the region’s gifts—sancerre and chèvre (goat cheese)—make for one of France’s most foolproof wine and cheese pairings. According to Ayers, the two work well together by matching a high-acid wine with a high-acid cheese.
High-quality examples from sancerre, an appellation for sauvignon blanc in the Loire’s eastern edge, are electrifying. This example, from Pascal Jolivet, bursts with lightning-speed energy: lime pith, flint, and thyme. Ayers chose the Couronne de Fontenay, also from Rodolphe Le Meunier, to pair alongside. A doughnut-shaped goat cheese coated in vegetable ash, the Couronne de Fontenay both accentuates the sancerre’s smokiness and nervy citric character, while simultaneously giving the wine greater breadth. In short, the two work wonders together.
The wine: Domaine Faiveley Gevrey-Chambertin “Les Cazetiers” 1er Cru 2015 (Burgundy, France) $156
The cheese: Le Fougerus
Few regions in the world can evoke such an emotional response from wine lovers quite like Burgundy. Cheese lovers can get just as excited by Burgundy’s specialty, Époisses. Unfortunately, according to Ayers, Époisses and red burgundy are not a pairing for the ages. Instead, he suggests Le Fougerus, a soft cow’s milk, Brie-style cheese with fern leaf wrapped around the rind.
Gevrey-Chambertin is distinguished for yielding some of Burgundy’s most structured, muscular pinot noirs. Faiveley’s “Les Cazetiers” 1er Cru delivers exceptionally on that promise, a stoic wine with an autumnal, medieval spiciness. The herbal notes in the Le Fourgerus from the fern beautifully complement the wine, touching upon some of its medicinal character—dried sage, pine sap, crushed stones. But for all its brooding decadence, the wine still captures a vibrant, red currant acidity, and the cheese matches that freshness bite for sip.
Fun fact: “In France you are asked if you want your Brie with a fillet or not,” explains Ayers. If you look at a slice of brie, you can sight the difference between the slick, gooier perimeter and the chalkier, matte interior. The older the brie, the wider that shiny perimeter will grow until it stretches through the entirety of a wheel. Ayers prefers his Brie fresher, as opposed to more aged.
The wine: Jean-Luc Colombo Cornas “Terres Brulées” 2011 (Northern Rhône Valley, France) $56
The cheese: Souréliette du Fédou
Perhaps the biggest challenge I posed to Ayers was to pair a cheese with Cornas, a region for Syrah in the Northern Rhône Valley. The wine is a natural match for charcuterie, but French tradition offers no clear-cut answer when it comes to cheese. Fortunately, Ayers had been itching to include a sheep’s milk cheese in the lineup and the results were scrumptious.
Sheep’s milk cheeses are richer in fat than their cow and goat counterparts, and they often develop funkier meaty flavors. The Souréliette du Fédou, a semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese from the south of France, is no exception. “It’s gamy, but then it goes by,” says Ayers. I could have used the exact same tasting note for Jean-Luc Colombo’s Cornas “Terres Brulées.” At first, it’s all smoke and bacon drippings, but eventually the wine rounds off with juicier notes of blackberry and plum. There’s a rustic elegance to both the wine and the cheese, and together they find harmony. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to add some charcuterie to the table.
The wine: Château Guiraud Sauternes 2003 (Bordeaux, France) $77
The cheese: Roquefort
We end the tasting with a personal favorite combination, sauternes and Roquefort. Why do dessert wines and blue cheeses pair so well together? “Generally blue cheese is salty,” says Ayers, and next to a sweet wine, the two can find a synergetic balance. It’s the same concept that makes a chocolate-covered pretzel or salted-caramel anything taste so good.
Sauternes comes from Bordeaux’s southern corner, sandwiched between the Garonne River and its tributary, the Ciron. Château Guiraud is one of the region’s icons, and its 2003 wine is utterly sumptuous—apricot, Bergamot orange, crème caramel, and butterscotch. The Roquefort, a sheep’s milk cheese from southern France aged in the natural caves of Mont Combalou, is just as salty as Ayers promised. The cheese also has a peppery kick on its finish, and both its spice and salt can be tempered by the Sauternes. This particular Roquefort has a bit of age, which Ayers explains accounts for some crystallization. That crunchier texture brings out some of the nuttier aspects of the wine—cashew butter and dried coconut flakes. I brought both the Château Guiraud and the Roquefort back with me to my San Francisco apartment and have slowly been nursing each in the week since the tasting. Together, they never fail to provide the perfect nightcap.