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Randy Caparoso
March 29, 2011 | Randy Caparoso

Say cheese (and z-zin!) at ZinFest

Zinfest 2011 wine label

Behold, Lodi’s ZinFest 2011 is upon us, taking place this coming May 13-15 at Lodi Lake Park!

The highlight of this three day wine country adventure is the ZinFest Wine Festival on Saturday, May 14:  50 Lodi wineries offering tastes of 250 of Lodi’s best, latest hand crafted wines; and yes, with a strong emphasis on Lodi’s heritage grape, Zinfandel.  No other region in California comes close to Lodi in the cultivation of ancient Zinfandel — thousands of acres of vines over 30 to 100+ years old — and Lodi still grows over 40% of all the Zinfandel in the state.

But wait, there’s more… at the Lodi Lake festival on May 14 zin lovers will also be able to savor much of Lodi’s emerging regional cuisine expand their vinous and culinary horizon by attending seminars under tents housing the ZinFest Cooking School and Zinfest Wine School.

One of the Wine School seminars:  Lodi Wine is Cheese Central Friendly, in which multi-award winning sommelier/restaurateur/journalist Randy Caparoso will lead you on a taste of four Lodi grown zins with four different artisanal cheeses presented by Cindy Della Monica, proprietor of Downtown Lodi’s spanking new specialty cheese shop, Cheese Central.


  • To get you warmed up for this organoleptic experience, let’s talk a little wine and cheese pairing; or to be specific, the sensory components that help you understand just how get the best possible wine and cheese matches.  Wine and cheese matching is always best understood when you are conscious of the five basic sensations found in all foods and wines — the sensations of sweet, tart, salty, bitter, and umami (or “savory”) — plus the effects of what we perceive through smell as “flavor.”  Some basic observations:
  • There are probably more cheeses that taste better with white wine than with red, despite the old adage that red wines are best with cheese.
  • Derived as they are from milk, cheeses give milky and acidic sensations, which explains why white wines wines varying from soft, creamy textures to sharper, acid edged qualities do well with softer, creamier, or slightly acidic/tart, young cheeses.
  • But in the firmer, longer aged, deeper colored and richer flavored cheeses, elevated amino acids tend to come into play, which is why red wines do well with richer, deeper flavored aged cheeses (since unlike white wines, reds are fermented with their skins, automatically giving them deeper flavors, along with oak qualities from barrel aging that match easily with caramelized sensations in aged cheeses).
  • The higher amounts of amino acids in cheeses are what gives them a strong taste of the sensation called umami (also re Caparoso’s Deconstructing Umami), and the longer aged and deeper flavored the cheese, the stronger the taste of umami in the cheese.  This is is why cheeses such as Parmigiano, Manchego and Cheddars are often grated onto foods like pasta:  because high umami sensations accentuate food flavors, in the same way that red wines made from grapes like Zinfandel and Sangiovese do.


  • By the same token, this is also why sweeter wines do best with cheeses aged with Penicillium molds that create the strong, salty tastes associated with blue cheeses:  because salty sensations in foods are always balanced by contrasting sweet sensations in other foods or in wines.
  • Earthy, organic, umami enhanced aromas and flavors in cheeses — particularly those made from sheep or goat’s milk, or else most variations of raw milk cheeses — find pleasing notes of similarity in wines of parallel qualities (re Caparoso on Wine & Food Matching – Science or Art?).  This is why the herby/grassy flavor common to wines like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the flinty or fusel aromas found in Rieslings, the round stoniness of many Chardonnays, the mushroomy/foresty notes of Pinot Noirs, and the meaty, even gamy or leathery notes typifying many reds made from grapes like Tempranillo and Syrah, all do well with distinctly earthy sheep, goat, or raw milk cheeses.
  • Once you get into the grand tradition of cheeses doctored up with additional flavors – like all the varieties of herb crusted Chèvres, peppercorn coated crèmes, cider washed rinds, stout soaked Cheddars, or even truffled Boschettos – the gloves come off, and all the varieties of red and white wines criss-cross in accordance to the dominant flavors that are added.  For instance, it makes sense that cheeses coated in black pepper strike partnerships with peppery wines like California Zinfandel and Syrahs from around the world.  Italianate herbs (i.e. rosemary, oregano, basil, etc.) will find matches with wines of Italian orientation (like those made from Sangiovese and Nebbiolo).  High umami, truffled cheeses practically scream for high umami, earth toned reds like Pinot Noir, or certain types of Chardonnay (especially those from France’s Burgundy region).

Finally, the relationship between wine and cheese is not just natural and historical, it is also sensory to the point of religion:  you don’t have to fully understand it to believe it works.  So what are the best wine and cheese combinations?  “Bests” do not exist, but there certainly are a lot of matches that simply make sense.  Speaking specifically in terms of Lodi grown wines, a few of our favorites:


The wonderful world of Chevres

Chèvres (French or Regional American goat cheeses)

Chèvre, or goat’s milk cheese, is made all over the world.  The historic match is Sauvignon Blanc — bottled as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé in France’s Loire region, and often as Fumé Blanc is California — because the lemony acidity of the grape balances the sharply acidic taste of goat’s milk, and the earthy, grassy flavor of Chèvre is amplified by the minerally, often flinty or herbal, taste of the grape.  Wineries making classic, tart edged Lodi grown Sauvignon Blanc include Ironstone, Peirano, and Woodbridge; although white wines made from the Albariño grape (like Lodi’s Bokisch, Harney Lane, or Fields Family) also have the citrusy tartness to balance pure goat cheeses.


Cindy Della Monica

Wine and cheese matches become all the more interesting when Chèvres are coated with flavors like black pepper or herbs.  Cracked black pepper crusted Chèvres bring out the natural peppery spice notes found in Zinfandel (look for lighter, soft tannin styles, such as Lodi’s LangeTwins, Fields Family, Peirano, Heritage Oak, Barsetti, 7 Deadly Zins, Earth Zin & Fire, Valhalla, or Primitivo by Uvaggio or Ripken) as well as in Lodi’s other

heritage grape, Petite Sirah (find smoother tannin styles in Grands Amis, McCay’s Paisley, or Maley Brothers).  Chèvres coated with earthy red peppers or Southwest style red chile mixes can be fantastic with soft styles of Syrah like Michael~David’s 6th Sense or Delicato Shiraz, or with fun, sweet spice scented Rhône-ish blends like Michael~David’s Incognito.

When coated with pungent Italian herbs (like rosemary, oregano and dried garlic), look for zesty medium bodied reds made from the Italy’s Sangiovese grape (Lodi’s Jeremy, Sorelle and Macchia produce delicious examples); and when crusted with fragrant French inspired mixtures (thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, sage, bay, lavender, et al.), look for soft but fragrantly spiced Lodi style Pinot Noirs such as Van Ruiten’s or Hybrid’s, or smooth, kitchen herb spiced scented Cabernet Francs made by Ironstone or Michael~David’s Inkblot.

Finally, when it comes to Chèvres infused with pungent truffles — as strong an umami taste as any — that’s when you can think in terms of earthier wines:  if you prefer a white, a mildly tart, scrubby, lavendery white like Uvaggio’s Vermentino will work; or among reds, Zinfandels with earthy/loamy tinged berry aromas like m2’s Soucie or Macchia’s Voluptuous, or totally unique wines like the roasted meaty/blackberryish Akin Tannat or the briary, woodsy, earthy, leather glovey Harmony Wynelands GMA (Grenache/Syrah/Alicante Bouschet).

Feta (Greece)

This quiveringly soft, briny, earthy goat’s milk cheese is typically used in salads to add pointedly sharp, salty and earthy tastes.  As with any food high in acidity and saltiness, the natural matches are wines with a touch of residual sugar balanced by a lemony acidity, and white wines made from the Verdelho grape (by Lodi’s St. Jorge or Alta Mesa) fit that function.  Crisp, fruit scented whites from the Pinot Gris (a.k.a. Pinot Grigio) grape also work with sharp/salty feta (look for bottlings by Lodi’s Hybrid, Grands Amis, lange Twins or Van Ruiten), as do the Sardinian inspired Vermentinos by Uvaggio or Woodbridge.


Cheese Central's Molly Prima

Havarti (Denmark)

Here’s a match rarely entering the minds of wine and cheese lovers.  Whereas Chèvres are tart and earthy, Havarti is soft, creamy, almost sweet and springy with fruitiness – a natural with most California grown styles of Chardonnay precisely because of their creamy, lower acid, soft, almost sweet, springy, fruitiness.  Classic examples:  Michael~David’s 7 Heavenly Chards, the Estate Chardonnay by The Lucas Winery, by Van Ruiten, Hybrid or Harney Lane.

Bufala or Smoked Mozzarella (Italy)

By itself, this soft, round cheese, packed in its own liquified whey – at their best, enjoyed within days after production – invites any soft, round, fruity white wine of moderate acidity. Pinot Gris/Grigio is a natural match, but so are most Chardonnays.  Smoked Mozzarella, in fact, postively screams for barrel fermented styles of Chardonnay, such as the smoky rich Harney Lane or viscous, creamy oak toned Lucas Estate Chardonnay, as well as Woodbridge’s special, barrel fermented called Section 29 Chardonnay.

Brie, Camembert & Triple Crème (France)

Round, even buttery styles of Chardonnay make excellent matches with these creamy soft ripened cheeses, although tart edged dry whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio can offer the minerally notes as well as sharply contrasting acidity to freshen the palate by keeping the runny, buttery, often earthy taste of especially ripened Bries and Camemberts from tiring the senses.


Gouda, Smoked Gouda & Super-Aged Gouda (Netherlands)

From the Dutch city of Gouda, this famous cheese is firm yet creamy in texture, developing a crunchy (from protein crystals), caramel-like sweetness as well as faintly nutty, mushroom-like notes well before it hits the market.  Crisply dry yet sweet lemon and lavender scented Verdelho (by St. Jorge or Alta Mesa) mingle effortlessly with younger Goudas’ crunchy texture.  But fruit focused Chardonnays like 7 Heavenly Chards and Van Ruiten’s are also easy choices, while toasted/vanillin, barrel fermented Chardonnays like Harney Lane’s can add to the lush texturing when matched with Smoked Gouda.

But once you get into the super-aged Goudas – like the Beemster Classic Extra Aged (18 months) or X.O. Extra Double Aged (26 months) – you start to veer off into red wine territory, since red wines are deeper in flavor than whites, and super-aged Goudas take on deeper, butterscotchy, vanilla roasted pecan flavors:  crazy good with sweet fruit forward, deep, full and oak enriched Zinfandels such as those by St. Amant, Harney Lane, Klinker Brick, Peltier Station, or Jesse’s Grove.

Manchego (Spain)

Once fromagers begin aging their products for six months or longer, cheeses such as the sheep’s milk Manchego become deeper, firmer and more complex in umami driven sensations:  definitely matches for red wines, given the depth derived during red wine production (i.e. fermentation with skins and longer aging processes).  Fresh, tangy, yet mature, mildly salty, faintly sweet, crunchy Manchego is one cheese that adapts to almost any red of medium to high tannin, lower acidity and some degree of wood aging.  In this sense, red wines made from Spanish grapes like Tempranillo (look for Bokisch, Harney Lane or Dancing Fox) are naturals, although Merlot (like that of Grands Amis, Vicarmont or Ironstone), Cabernet Sauvignon (look for Mettler or Grady Family), and Bordeaux style blends (Woodbridge’s Section 29 or Grands Amis’ Premiere Passion) will seldom fail to please.


Parmigiano-Reggiano (Italy)

Because of its high amino acids, we usually think of Parmigiano as more of a condiment than an eating cheese; which is a shame, because there is nothing like simple shavings of Parmigiano with glasses of deep, sturdy, aggressively oak aged reds made from any of the Bordeaux varieties (especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot), bottled as varietals or blends.  Of course, the deep, fruity/nutty, crystallized taste of Parmigiano also has a way of bringing out the sweet scented, foresty/black cherry taste of the Sangiovese grape (finer Lodi grown examples by Sorelle, Jeremy, Macchia or Fields Family Il Ladro), the blackberry/black cherry qualities of Piedmont’s Barbera grape (by Sorelle, Macchia, Uvaggio or Grands Amis), not to mention the smooth yet sturdy, concentrated, spiced cherry scented Carignane (Jesse’s Grove Ancient Vine or Van Ruiten are outstanding).

Cheddars (International)

Practically all the world’s great aged Cheddars – from English Farmhouse to Canadian Diamond, and domestics like the Sharps of Vermont and Tillamook in Oregon – possess even firmer, tangier, but also deeper caramelized butter flavors that do amazing jobs of smoothing out the rough, boisterous edges of Cabernet Sauvignons and other high extract, generous tannin red wines such as some of Lodi’s bigger Zinfandels (among the many, Macchia, Michael~David’s Lust or Earthquake, McCay’s Truluck’s, Harney Lane’s Lizzy James, Jesse’s Grove’s Westwind, and the famous Marian’s by St. Amant), the wildly spiced reds made from black juiced Alicante Bouschet (St. Jorge or Harmony Wynelands), or good ol’ fashioned, butt kicking Petite Sirah (Ripken, Grands Amis, McCay, and Michael~David’s Earthquake or Petite-Petit).

Blue Cheeses (International)

Generally speaking, the salty, sharp, and yes, moldy, taste of the great blue veined cheeses of the world respond best to the great sweet wines of the world – easy as pie, and as pleasing as pineapple sauce on a ham. After that, the preferences become personal.  France’s sweet Sauternes, for instance, is a traditional match for Stilton as well as for France’s Roquefort (made from ewe’s milk), although Port style reds (both d’Art and Woodbridge’s Portacinco are modern Lodi classics) and sweet, late harvest style zins (look for Van Ruiten’s or The Lucas’s, and also Harmony’s Zinsation) are just as ecstatic with these classic blues.  If you like the rounder, smoother, nevertheless rich and tangy blue cheese quality of Iowa’s famous Maytag Blue or Rogue Creamery’s Oregon Blue, as well as the strong yet silky sensations of Italy’s Gorgonzola, Denmark’s Danablue or Spain’s Valdeón, look for either these sweet style zins or else luscious, golden sweet whites made from the Muscat grape (like Woodbridge’s Moscato or the Moscato Dolce by Uvaggio).



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