Cheese & Wine Tasting
At the Jewish Festival of Shavuot, it is traditional to eat dairy products. This gives the perfect opportunity to hold a cheese and wine tasting!
The Israeli cheese and wine industries have much in common. Both have undergone quality revolutions in recent years. Both industries have much to be proud of. It is possible that that the strides made by Israel in areas of food culture and gastronomy can best be sampled in its cheeses & wines.
Once, the choice for the Israeli consumer was for ‘Yellow Cheese’, ‘White Cheese and ‘Salty Cheese’, and Israeli wines were nothing to write home about. The roots of the gourmet cheese revolution began in 1980 – 1981 with three enterprising families. Avinoam and Michal Brakin founded the Barkanit Dairy at Kfar Yehezkiel in the Jezreel Valley. Amiram and Drora Ovrutski built the beautiful Ein Kammonim farm in the Lower Galilee. Shay Seltser opened a boutique dairy in the Jerusalem Hills. All three specialized in producing handmade goats cheese of world class quality and they heralded the cheese revolution which followed. Today there are numerous small, artisan producers of wonderful cheeses and the large national dairies have responded by producing better cheeses than before.
Wine followed a similar route. In 1983, a dynamic individual by the name of Shimshon Welner shook up the wine establishment by founding the Golan Heights Winery, with the support of four moshavs and four kibbutzes. He imported expertise from abroad, decided to aim for absolute quality and marketed the wines in a canny way to create consumer awareness. The winery set a standard which has today been followed and there is now a large dynamic, quality driven wine industry. There are hundreds of boutique and domestic wineries and a number of medium and large producers, which are all focused on quality. Many produce world class wines.
There is no better or more basic, rustic meal than to have a hunk of freshly baked bread, accompanied by cheese and a pitcher or carafe of wine. It is a scene that has helped to accentuate the fact that wine and cheese are natural partners. There is a misconception that red wine is the most natural partner to cheese, but white wines can go better and be more versatile. In the wine world Shavuot is jokingly known as the festival for white wines!
However the world of cheese is probably more complicated and varied even than the world of wine. Cheese may be strong flavored, fat, acidic or salty. It can be hard, soft, creamy or crumbly. It can be matured, pasteurized or unpasteurized; made from goat’s milk, cow, sheep or something more exotic like buffalo or yak.
To simplify the issue, most cheeses can be placed in the following categories:
A hard cheese which is firm, and not aged too much, will go well with a medium to full bodied red wine. Cheddar and Parmesan are classic examples of fine red wine cheeses. In the same way the English add milk to lessen the tannin of the strong tea they drink, the cheese will soften the tannin. However if the cheese is older and more pungent, the wine needs to be more mature and less tannic to avoid a clash. For this you will need older vintages.
This is the hardest category to find a match. A creamy, fatty cheese will make most reds seem like water. The fat in the cheese will neutralize the tannin. Alternatively an oaky and tannic red wine will taste slightly metallic when these cheeses are ripe and runny. A pasteurized Brie or Camembert would best be served by a lightly oaked Chardonnay with good acidity.
For a soft cheese like Mozzarella, a delicately flavored, unoaked dry wine, without too much varietal character is preferable. The slightly more acidic Feta would need a wine with higher acidity like an aromatic Sauvignon Blanc.
Salt accentuates tannin so the myth that red wine goes with all cheeses is shown to be most false when a red wine is matched with a blue cheese. However, Roquefort or Stilton with a sweet, high quality dessert wine or fortified port style wine, are ideal combinations. The salt and sweetness contrast to enhance both cheese and wine.
This category produces Israel’s finest cheeses. They have a strong character but can go with either white or red wines. The classic combination for a young goats cheese is a varietal Sauvignon Blanc. An aged Chèvre can be matched successfully with a mature well-structured and but not tannic red. Excessive tannin would clash with the pungent flavor of goats cheese.
Cooked cheese is also better with white wine. A cheese sauce, like Mornay, will usually be matched well with an oaky Chardonnay, the weight of the sauce being matched by the intensity of oak. For a Fondue, a Sauvignon Blanc is recommended.
A Pizza is best with a young, fruity red with good acidity and bold fruit. A Quiche is best with a Chardonnay or Viognier.
Possibly the symbol of Shavuot as far as dairy foods are concerned, is cheesecake. With a New York cheesecake there is nothing better than a fortified Muscat. It is this that earns Shavuot a reputation as one of the tastiest festivals.