Before it went worldwide, wine and cheese was a French thing. From centuries of experience, the French have a unique knowledge of the two that makes them eat wine and cheese differently. Most other countries are in the dark. In fact, the French secret to great taste is not ‘how’ you eat the wine and cheese but ‘when.’
How did the French develop a keen sense for wine and cheese? They have been an integral
part of French cuisine since the medieval period. According to Saad Hafez, “the major role played by wine and cheese in French food continues unabated.” It may be the only two elements that have stayed consistent from the time of knights and castles. It still reigns supreme in the agricultural markets of France.
For centuries, wine has been the drink of choice in France, going from the opening of the meal until the end. The wines often change over the course of the meal to match the foods they are served with. For example, Saad Hafez asserts in medieval desserts “consisted of spiced lumps made of hardened honey or sugar that were called dragees, spiced wine and aged cheese.”
But we can learn from the French. Americans eat wine and cheese all wrong. The French, ever since the beginning, ate cheese with wine after a full meal. We should not overlook that wine accompanies the entire meal. Cheese, however, is served after the main course and before dessert. The cheese plate normally has four or five different choices to accommodate the preferences of the diner.
The wisdom in the French system is in the ordering of the meal. You may think that wine and cheese go perfect together at the beginning of the meal but a study done at UC Davis has demonstrated that cheese overpowers the subtle flavors of wine and lingers around. Cheese suppresses half of the normal taste components of wine, such as dried fruit, oak, mushroom, vegetal and bell pepper aromas, and berry, oak, sour and astringent tastes. So wine make the taste of cheese better, but not the other way around.
To get the best of both worlds, start off your meal with wine. If at a restaurant, before dessert ask for the cheese plate. You’ll get the best out of your wine and still be able to savor the cheese. But wine and cheese tasting parties are not a good idea if you don’t give yourself the chance to value the wine by itself. Otherwise, the quality of the wine is lost. The cheese does benefit from the wine, so don’t give up on the pairing. Time has proven the worth of the pairing. Only remember to save the cheese until the bottom of the wine bottle.