If It Grows Together, It Goes Together – French Wines & Cheeses

In celebration of #FCIFlashback month, ICC hosted a special Bastille Day Wine & Cheese pairing event with specialty French cheeses provided by Paris Gourmet. For this event, which was the first wine and cheese pairing event I’ve ever attended, I was seated in a room with a Master Sommelier and 50 knowledgeable wine professionals. As a recent college graduate, a 22-year old lover of white wine (the sweeter, the better), and someone who knows little about wine, I was nervous. I rarely am intimidated by anything, but I felt clueless about how to participate in a tasting with people who had been doing this for who-knows-how long.

Sitting in the back of the room, I wondered whether I would actually have to spit into a cup (what is that even for?!) and if I should attempt to swirl the wine, or if should I just sip it out of its glass? Luckily, ICC’s Dean of Wine Studies and Master Sommelier, Scott Carney, took us through each wine and cheese pairing with ease and explained how to properly sample each pairing (for the record, you smell the cheese, then the wine, then combine the pairing). ICC’s wonderful Wine Program Coordinator, Elizabeth Smith, CS, who organized the event, also helped to create an informative slide show to help the newbie’s follow along (mostly me!).

Here is what I learned from the event, including each pairing and the different regions in France where they came from. Try to create these pairings at home, and remember the saying “if it grows together, it goes together… but the rules are made to be broken!”

  1. The Loire Valley is well known for its beautiful castles and scenery. A few hours’ drive outside of Paris, it was a popular place for châteaux to be built. The Loire Valley is also considered to be one of France’s most diverse wine regions, and popularity for their wines has been increasing throughout the last decade, even though they have been producing wines since Roman times.
    • The Pairing: For the first pairing of the event, we were given 2017 Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc and Le Chevrot, a goat cheese. I enjoyed this wine for its fresh citrus flavors, and Dean Carney was sure to point out how the tartness cleansed the palette and enhanced the creaminess of the cheese. I was indeed surprised how the wine somehow made the cheese creamier!
  2. Normandy is known for its seafood, pears and apples, and butter and cheese. The climate in Normandy – colder and somewhat more volatile than the rest of France – makes it ideal for apples, not so much for grapes. This is one of the many reasons that the best cider in the world comes from Normandy, and why Dean Carney decided to have us try a cider instead of a wine. If you ever have the chance, don’t miss the opportunity to try Normandy cider!
    • The Pairing: The second pairing was my personal favorite—a pear cider and Camembert cheese. The cider was Eric Bordelet’s Poiré Authentique, and in Dean Carney’s estimation, “they are one of the top producers of pear cider in the world.” It was so delicious and surprisingly light. The cheese—oh my, the cheese— was maybe one of the best cheeses I have ever tasted, and I am an avid cheese lover. It was made from the milk of Normandy cows, who are known for their rich, grassy milk. If you like mushrooms and truffles as much as I do, you must try this cheese. Somehow it tastes like truffles without actually having any truffles in the cheese.
  3. Jura, at the Swiss border near Lake Geneva, has a long history of cheese and wine-making. Arguably France’s most obscure wine region, Jura’s wines are unusual, distinctive, and completely different from wines made anywhere else in the world. It’s a tiny region, as in 5,200 acres planted, which is said to account for just 0.2% of French wine production overall. The Trousseau grape, which is what we sampled, is one of the grapes that Jura is known for.
    • The Pairing: This pairing was interesting and unlike any wine and cheese that I have tried. The cheese, a Montboissé, was strong and pungent in its aftertaste. There are two layers to the cheese; traditionally, one made from morning milk and the other from evening milk, separated by a thin layer of ash. The wine, 2015 Domaine Pignier Côtes du Jura Trousseau, was vibrant and tangy and somehow the cheese brought out buttery notes. While the cheese was not my favorite, I enjoyed the wine and would love to try it again.
  4. The Basque Region of France borders the better known Spanish Basque Region and has a population of less than 300,000. The region has a unique food and culture scene because of its complex cultural identity and history. Lesser known for their wines and therefore difficult to find, they are delicious and delightful when you come across them.
    • The Pairing: For this pairing we had the opportunity to try a cheese that is believed to be the oldest of all French cheeses, and said to be one of the first cheeses ever made. Ossau-Iraty smells oddly similar to Parmesan and has similar nutty flavors to Gouda. This cheese needs a fuller bodied wine since it has such a strong flavor, so Dean Carney paired it with 2016 Alain Graillot Saint-Joseph Syrah. Aged in 1-3 year-old neutral burgundy barrels which soften the edges of a wine, this particular wine was fruity and the pairing was perfection.
  5. The Occitanie Region, proclaimed by Vogue as “the new wine region to visit in France,” has had vines since the Greek planted them in 5th century B.C. Occitanie is also the birthplace of sparkling wine and one of the few places in the world where you can craft almost any type of wine. Remarkably, this region includes more acreage of vineyards than all of the land in Australia—almost 550,000 acres.
    • The Pairing: This was the pairing that I was most intrigued by. The 1997 Château Guiraud 1er Cru Classé Sauternes had a distinct caramel color and the most intense bouquet that I have ever smelled in a wine. The cheese was a sight not for the faint of heart. Most people are used to seeing the mold in bleu cheese, but this Roquefort had more craters of mold than I had ever seen. Even though it surprisingly did not have much of a smell, upon first bite its sharp, tangy flavor immediately made my eyes water. The wine itself was shockingly sweet despite its notes of maturity and perfectly paired with the pungent cheese. Despite its looks, the cheese was incredible and had a soft texture.

So if you’re just as inspired as I was by this afternoon of wine & cheese, try to recreate some of these pairings for yourself! Ask your local wine retailer for wines from these regions and visit Paris Gourmet’s website to try some of these unique cheeses.

Thank you to Paris Gourmet for the delicious cheese, ICC’s Dean of Wine Studies Scott Carney, MS for his perfect pairings and informative lecture, and ICC’s Wine Program Coordinator, Elizabeth Smith, CS, for her tireless efforts to put together the event.