Photo: David Katz
GET YER GOAT ON
BY DAVID KATZ
“Sauvignon Blanc is a magic bullet with fresh goat’s milk cheese.” Heard this before? When looking at the confounding world of cheese and wine pairing, it is easy to employ sweeping generalizations in an effort to protect your fragile ego from the ugly truth: The cheesy patch of the food and wine pairing world is just too dag nabbed complex for any sweeping generalization to be of much use to anybody.
Incredibly, the multitude of distinct aromas and flavors in wine are actually dwarfed by the number found in the world’s cheeses. There are certainly conventions for cheese and wine pairing, but personal taste has a way of diluting their usefulness. So, when considering the universal success of fresh goat’s milk cheese and Sauvignon Blanc, it is critically important to keep in mind that goats are not all alike, their feed is not all alike, their water is not all alike and the altitude, average temperature, production methods and cultures used in the cheeses made with their milk are not all alike.
Now on the Sauvignon Blanc side of the equation, the grape clones are not all alike, the soil is not all alike, the water is not all alike, the altitude, average temperature, methods, blah, blah, blah.
On the upside, there is varietal character—the sum total of the consistent and prominent characteristics that a given grape tends to exhibit, no matter where it is grown or by whom. When we taste wine blind, we apply the same sort of logical reasoning that students of art, architecture and music do in attributing a work to a specific artist, architect or musician. They look for stylistic similarities, thematic similarities, similarities of proportion, color or texture. With wine, we look for those consistent indicators of a specific varietal or, in some cases, a blend of varietals. Even a self-described novice is likely to know a few familiar varietals by look, smell and taste. We use this to predict what we are likely to like, and what we are likely to dislike, the same way Pandora internet radio hones in on a personal playlist for a listener. Like Pandora, wine recommendations based on varietal preferences, regional preferences and stylistic preferences will never get it right every time, but they certainly help us to navigate an otherwise overcrowded field.
There is also a varietal character to cheeses—to cheese styles, and to goat milk vs. cow milk vs. sheep milk cheeses. Acidity is one varietal characteristic that most cheese lovers associate with fresh goat-milk cheeses, often referred to simply as “chevre.” Bright acidity is also a varietal characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc, regardless of origin. For many, acidity is the second most important consideration in food and beverage pairing, after balance of body style. In the case of fresh, lively goat milk cheese and Sauvignon Blanc, we’re off to a pretty great start, with lighter body on both sides and, typically, a lovely acid balance as well. But while it looks promising, we’re not there yet.
So, what do you need to know to figure out whether the chevre and Sauvignon Blanc are a universal truth or a regional miracle? Well, it certainly helps to know from whence the idea came. It comes from France. To understand the real deal, you have to look for wine and cheese from the Loire Valley. Because there are plenty of goats outside of the Loire, and the Sauvignon Blanc grape makes more than Sancerre, but cheese made from the milk of goats in that region will make you weep, when consumed with Sancerre from that same patch. The world has yet to give us a more perfect example of terroir, the sense of place that wine or food from a specific region exhibit, that is uniquely “right there,” and nowhere else. Grassy, mineral, lively fresh goat’s cheese and grassy, minerally, lively wine comingle so effortlessly that there’s really very little to say about it except, “hmm, mmm, yes, oh that’s good.” Once you have tasted the tastes that put this pair on the map, you have a yardstick.
In California, we got goat. New Zealand got goat. Pretty much every region in the world that got Sauvignon Blanc got goat. There are more than a dozen goat’s milk cheese producers here in the Marin, Sonoma and Napa area and, between them, they produce excellent goat’s milk cheeses of every type imaginable. We also got Sauvignon Blanc, and plenty of it. So, does our goat’s milk cheese love our Sauvignon Blanc as much as it does in North Central France?
Well, you could say that when it works here, it really works here. The cheeses and wines are very different here than they are abroad, but there is something in the varietal character of both that translates beautifully to Marin and the Wine Country. The trouble, if there is trouble, is more often on the wine side. It is important to note that it has nothing whatever to do with the quality or finesse of the wines produced here, but with the specific qualities that some wines may exhibit in this region. In simplest terms, they tend to be bigger, in part because we tend to like them that way, and in part because a longer, warmer growing season, and other environmental factors, often make them that way, whether we like it or not.
Crostini with Fresh Thyme and Grains of Paradise
I tend to leave fresh cheeses alone, but a marinated olive or a bit of fruit is always a welcome addition to the table. For fresh or soft ripened goat’s cheese, I like crunchy crostini to accentuate the cheese’s texture, without overtaking its flavor. I have included a simple crostini recipe using Grains of Paradise (Aframomum melegueta), an African spice used in beer, gin and aquavit, which has regained popularity in recent years as a substitute for black pepper. It has a softer edge, with floral and citrus character, especially when used sparingly. I use fresh thyme here, but other herbs in season would work as well.
As I note in my piece, I often find a mouthful of herbs to be overwhelming to wine of any stripe, especially Sauvignon Blanc, but one subtle herb note can have a different appeal altogether. The herbs most likely to pull a wine (or a cheese) out of whack are pitchy or resinous herbs such as rosemary, sage, mint, marjoram and oregano. I’m more likely to pluck fresh parsley, chervil or early harvest thyme, basil and tarragon, before they get too powerful in the summer heat.
Yield: Approximately 50 crostini
1 (12-inch) day-old baguette or other small loaf, thinly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
Finely ground sea salt to taste
1 teaspoon Grains of Paradise, coarsely ground
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 325°F. Slice the entire loaf into rounds approximately 1/4 inch thick and arrange on a baking sheet, evenly spaced. Lightly brush or spray the top of each round with extra-virgin olive oil. Sprinkle to taste with salt, ground Grains of Paradise and fresh thyme. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes, or until crisp through. Allow the crostini to cool on the pan before serving. These may be stored for up to 1 week in a tightly sealed container or zip-lock bag.
Our Sauvignon Blanc is, on average, higher in alcohol, and more intense in fruit aromas and flavors, than the same grapes grown in the Loire Valley. The soils here, wonderful though they may be, tend to contribute less of the minerality that builds a strong bridge to the flavor of well-made chevre in the Loire. The grassy or “herbaceous” nature of Sauvignon Blanc often takes a minor supporting role in our wines, if it is present at all.
To celebrate the freshness of our local chevre, look for a Sauvignon Blanc with a lean, clean profile. Mind the alcohol. Mind the oak if it is present. Look to the cooler climates that the California wine country has to offer when you select a wine. There are also plenty of other local wine choices for chevre and goat’s milk cheeses. There are any number of sparkling wines and crisp whites that might suit local chevre as well, as noted below.
For aged goat’s milk cheeses, look for wines with increasing body style to keep pace with the texture and stronger flavors that age and complex culturing produce. Don’t be afraid to look at other varietals, including clean Chardonnays, with less oak and less lactic mouthfeel. As oak becomes more prominent in your wine choice, expect a little conflict with ash-rinded, herbed or washed-rind cheeses. Look also to off-dry wines, or even moderately sweet wines, especially if a sweet condiment (like honey) or a sweet foil (like dried or fresh fruit) appears on the cheese plate. You’ll often read about how loads of fresh herbs complement the herbaceous nature of Sauvignon Blanc. In my experience, that backfires about half the time, with powerful fresh herb flavor and aroma completely obscuring what it seeks to complement in the wine. Fresh goat cheeses covered in herbs seem like the perfect foil for Sauvignon Blanc, but there’s that old adage about things that seem too easy.
DAVID’S FAVORITE LOCAL PICKS:
Among my favorite goat’s milk cheese producers in the area I particularly admire Goat’s Leap in St. Helena. Their cheeses are only available seasonally, and are always worth the hunt. Andante Dairy in Petaluma is another local treasure producing excellent fresh and aged goat’s milk cheese.
To complement my cheese fix, I went shopping across the hall, at Acme Fine Wines in St. Helena, where general manager Erin Sullivan always helps me find something new to love. The result of our hunt: Broman Sauvignon Blanc, 2011, Napa Valley, which fired on all cylinders with Andante Dairy fresh goat’s cheese. Another winner, and Loire transplant, Chenin Blanc, made an excellent varietal alternative, and reached deeper into Andante’s aged goat offerings. Blue Plate Chenin Blanc, 2011, is made by St. Helena producer Picnic Wine Company, using Clarksburg, California, fruit. Clarksburg Chenin Blanc also finds its way into several notable offerings from Bogle, Dry Creek Vineyards and a Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend from Pine Ridge. Of course, the Chappellet family has been producing estate Chenin Blanc on St. Helena’s Pritchart Hill since the 1960s, now replanted, and bottled with Molly Chappellet’s signature.
David Katz is managing partner of Panevino, an event producer for the wine industry and manufacturer of Panevino No. 6 Grissini and Sub Rosa Salumi. David has served on the faculty of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone since 2004, where he developed and teaches a curriculum in wine and food pairing at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies. For more information, visit Panevino-NapaValley.com, or SalumeriaSubRosa.com.