When last we met for an epic drinks smackdown back in March, fellow WLDC author Kirk and I had our preconceived notions of which paired better with food – wine or beer – challenged and in some cases totally overthrown. I left with a heightened appreciation for beer and a fascination with the subject of food pairings. So when I was invited to attend National Geographic Live’s A Come to Cheeses Moment: Wine vs. Beer event, where beer and wine would duke it out over best pairing with cheese, it took little to convince me.
Wouldn’t you know that earlier in the day I was advised to kick the dairy habit for two weeks thanks to suspected lactose intolerance (my reaction? censored!). So my second drinks smackdown fittingly became farewell to my beloved cheese. Forgive me then if this reads more as an ode to cheese than to drinks! Sigh. I inhaled deeply as I entered the Grosvenor Auditorium at the National Geographic headquarters, redolent with the stinky glorious aroma, ready to say good-bye.
It was a packed house, and we were incredibly lucky in our three distinguished (and humorous) presenters – Steven Jenkins, Joshua Wesson and Nick Funnell. Both Jenkins and Wesson are regular on NPR’s The Splendid Table – Jenkins is the first American to win the prestigious title Chevalier du Taste Fromage and Wesson is the author of Red Wine With Fish and a top sommelier, having opened Best Cellars in 1996. Funnell is the brewmaster for the Great American Restaurants chain and a winner at the Great American Beer Festival. They had an amazing depth of knowledge that I can’t hope to replicate, but I’ll try to give you a taste.
All of the cheese served was from raw milk, and Jenkins did point out that he had chosen obscure cheeses which might be difficult for us to get ourselves (you’ve just been challenged!). The price point of the wine was very reasonable, Wesson indicated, around $15 a bottle. Funnell had picked all local beers at roughly $7 a pint.
So let’s dive in!
Cheese: Scimudin (Italy)
Wine: Caves Bailly St. Meyland Brut NV (France)
Beer: Capitol City Kolsch (Washington, DC)
My tears began to flow quite early on, as I tasted the delectable richness of the Scimudin (pronounced she-muh-deen in local dialect), an incredibly creamy cow’s cheese with just a touch of goat’s milk, from northern Lombardy. Life without cheese was going to be dull indeed. Wesson had chosen a sparkling wine, explaining that the “scrubbing bubbles” would cut the density of the cheese, but the wine itself was not to my liking at all, as I’m not a fan of sweet bubbles. For me, the subtle hoppiness of the beer was a better match, tempering the richness of the cream.
Cheese: Bethmale (France)
Wine: Oveja Negra Chardonnay-Viognier 2008 (Chile)
Beer: Ruddy Duck Tripel (Solomons Island, MD)
I fell hard for the Tripel, as I’m developing a love for beers with a spicy finish. But against the cheese, a goat’s milk from Ariege, it just didn’t work for me. The wine on its own was perfectly fine to quaff, a decent blend of chardonnay and viognier. With the cheese, it was elevated to stellar. I was beginning to wonder, as with the previous smackdown, about the chemistry behind taste. It’s fascinating how a decent wine can be transformed by a divine cheese, and how a beautiful beer can be killed by it.
Cheese: Robiola Vecchia Valsassina (Italy)
Wine: Lurton Mendoza Pinot Gris 2009 (Argentina)
Beer: Sweetwater Springbock (Centreville, VA)
The mothership of dairy goodness has landed! My table positively swooned over the Robiola, another outstanding cheese from northern Lombardy. Its ripe lusciousness was accented by a briny rind, washed in seawater. To match this you needed something that would yield, not punch back. The beer was fun on its own, but too challenged by the cheese. The wine, a very simple light-hearted pinot gris, was transformed by the pairing into something like silk velvet.
Cheese: Pico Melero (Spain)
Wine: Vina del Val Ribera del Duero 2008 (Spain)
Beer: Flying Dog Raging Bitch (Frederick, MD)
At this point I wanted to marry master cheesemonger Jenkins (and not just because he silenced an increasingly rowdy room with aptly delivered snark). Because this sheep’s milk cheese from Valladolid in Spain was INCREDIBLE. I’m ashamed to say I can’t even recall the taste of the wine or beer for this round. The cheese stands alone.
Cheese: Wildspitz (Switzerland)
Wine: Liveli Passamente Negroamaro 2008 (Italy)
Beer: Devil’s Backbone Barleywine (Roseland, VA)
If there’s one thing that can make me forget my marriage vows to Jenkins, it’s barleywine (fast becoming my favorite ale). The toffee notes went beautifully with the wonderfully tangy mix of cow and goat’s milk cheese. But on its own merits, I really enjoyed the wine, a rustic red from Italy’s heel in Puglia. As Wesson quips at this point, “Oak is like makeup on wine,” and he proves it with the earthy negroamaro. Of all the wine he’s chosen this evening, it’s my favorite.
Cheese: Peralzola (Spain)
Wine: Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz 2009 (South Africa)
Beer: Gonzo Imperial Porter (Frederick, MD)
Time for my last cheese, so perhaps I’m biased, but this sheep’s milk blue was so ridiculously good, a mouthful of spice and tang… if it was to be my last, it was worth it! The wine was not at all something I would drink on its own, far too sweet for me, but with the cheese it became transcendent. Tangy blue against sweet red wine makes glorious nectar! Though I adore porter, with this cheese it didn’t do it for me.
And the winner is…
So, after all this cheesy alcoholic goodness, who won? Did wine or beer come out ahead in the battle to pair? Well, neither made it out obviously ahead. Every round appeared a draw, as with a crowd this large, a show of hands didn’t really present a scientific result. I felt that wine won, but note I was without beerlover Kirk to sway my opinion!
What was apparent? The pairing of food with wine and beer is an art form of an intensely personal nature. Your palate is different than anyone else’s. But Wesson made a brilliant analogy that’s quite helpful to remember: Pairing food is like pairing couples. You can either complement or contrast. If you contrast, it’s like when you’re attracted to someone who’s your opposite, and then together bring out the qualities in each other that you lack on your own. If you complement, it’s like when you’re attracted to someone similar to you, and then together strengthen the qualities you share.
Both have their merits, it just depends on your mood. And above all, remember – it’s fun!
Many thanks to Stephanie Montgomery and National Geographic Live for inviting me to attend gratis. Watch for our monthly round-up of events and ticket giveaways!