Cheese, Wine and Time

wine and cheeseFor flavor hounds, this article about cheese and wine pairing on NPR’s The Salt gives one a lot to chew on.  First, it’s nice to see the science of taste catching up to something I’ve been insisting on for a long time. The quality of tasting experience is determined as much by how substances evolve on the palate as it is on static structural relationships between elements. A new method of scientifically assessing flavor  called Temporal Dominance of Sensations (TDS) attempts to capture this dimension:

TDS is designed to reveal how the taste of something evolves as you consume it. The taster sits down in front of a computer screen with a black glass of an unknown wine. On the screen are 11 words describing attributes or sensations such as sour, astringent, bitter, floral and so on….The taster takes a sip and then clicks on whichever sensation is dominant at that moment. When the sensation changes — say, from “sour” to “red fruits” — the tester clicks the new attribute, until there is no sensation left.

The idea that it is changes in sensation that make the flavor experience interesting, exciting and satisfying has been largely ignored by flavor science. This experiment with wine and cheese is the first time I’ve come across flavor science trying to measure this dimension which to my mind is crucial.

As to the main point of the article, it claims that in general white wines pair better with a wider variety of cheeses than red wines do, contradicting  the widely accepted view that red wine and cheese is a natural pairing.

Although the researchers did not set out to recommend specific pairings, The Salt pressed Dr. Galmarini. Her latest study, as yet unpublished, does offer some advice.

“If you have many cheeses, better to serve a white wine,” she says.

It would be nice to have had a summary of the evidence for this. The article quotes food writer Ed Behr on the topic:

Behr points out that most red wines “are completely unrefreshing.” That’s fine with a little cheese at the end of a structured meal, to finish the red wine. But Behr says, when the cheese is more than just a taste but “maybe the central protein of the meal, what you want is a drink that’s much more refreshing.” In other words: a dry white.

I think that is broadly correct. But the problem I have with wine and cheese pairings is that cheese is almost always mouth coating, and this often cancels the perception of subtle nuances in wine, whether red or white. The article acknowledges this effect.

… Galmarini says there is a clear conclusion for certain sensations, such as sourness and astringency, which would probably be considered negative.

“With cheese,” she told The Salt, “the sensation is reduced. It does not last so long in the mouth.”

Right. So wines that are sour or excessively drying—bad wines—will taste better with cheese because of this mouth-coating effect. But what isn’t mentioned is that, by the same token, good wines will be diminished when paired with a mouth coating cheese.

This is not to say that the combination of wine and cheese is never satisfying. Sauvignon Blanc and a good chevre or a tawny Port with Stilton are magical. But you may not be getting as much nuance out of the wine when paired with a mouth coating cheese.

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