If one were to compile a list of the least-significant issues confronting mankind in the first decade of the 21st century, the question of wine's compatibility with cheese would surely rank high. That university researchers would spend dozens of man-hours examining the interplay between Camembert and cabernet only goes to show that some frontiers of knowledge are perhaps better left as virgin forest. Nevertheless, when word broke last month that scientists had proven that red wine and cheese don't mix, the study generated a slew of articles worldwide and much concerned chatter among epicurean types who prefer their Comte with a splash of vin rouge.
They shouldn't have been so quick to toss out the water crackers: It was a false alarm. Contrary to what was reported, the study, which was conducted by U.C. Davis' famed Department of Viticulture and Enology, does not conclude that red wine and cheese are incompatible. Why did so many media outlets claim otherwise? Chalk it up to one erroneous headline. On Jan. 19, the New Scientist's Web site ran a short item about the Davis study under the banner "Vintage or vile, wine is all the same after cheese." The story was quickly picked up by the Times of London, the Guardian, and the BBC, as well as the food blogosphere, and within a matter of hours a pall had fallen over bourgeois tables everywhere.
But when I spoke Tuesday with professor Hildegarde Heymann, who supervised the study, she told me that the New Scientist had misinterpreted the results, which will be published in full next month in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture (alas, not available on newsstands). Heymann, who had been visiting Moldova and was unreachable for the last several weeks, seemed dumbstruck by the attention the study had generated, and not a little chagrined by the widespread misunderstanding. Although her feelings toward the press are not warm at the moment, she was kind enough to walk me through the study and send along a draft of the paper.
The study used 11 volunteers—some staff, some students—who were given a crash course in the descriptive analysis of wine. They were then served eight reds of varying quality—two pinot noirs, two cabernet sauvignons, two merlots, and two Syrahs—and asked to rate them for intensity of flavors and aromas using a 10-cm unstructured line scale. Heymann couldn't tell me the names of the wines—they had been donated, and the donor didn't want their identities revealed. However, she did tell me that all but one was from California (the lone import was an Australian Shiraz); all were produced in 2000, 2001, or 2002; and prices ranged from $7 to $20.
After sampling the wines sans fromage, the students re-evaluated them while tasting eight different cheeses—Emmental, Gruyère, mozzarella, Teleme, Stilton, Gorgonzola, a New York cheddar, and a Vermont cheddar. The idea, said Heymann, was to mix mild cheeses with assertive ones, soft ones with hard ones. Each wine was paired with each cheese, and the volunteers were instructed to again assess the intensity of each wine's aromas and flavors. Did the fruit, tannins, acidity, and oak become more or less perceptible when the wines were drunk with the cheeses?
All eight wines suffered a noticeable decrease in the intensity of their aromas and flavors on account of the cheeses. However, contrary to what the New Scientist headline suggested, the cheeses did not diminish the ability of the students to distinguish the better wines from the rotgut. In the initial, cheese-free tasting, the $20 merlot showed more pronounced structure and oak than the $8 merlot; it lost some of its definition when drunk with the cheeses, but so did the cheaper merlot, and the qualitative gap between the two wines, at least as perceived by the volunteers, remained basically unchanged.
Only one element of the wines became more apparent: A buttery aroma that was faintly detectable when the wines were tasted alone became much more obvious when they were tasted with the cheeses. Buttery aromas are a byproduct of malolactic fermentation, which converts the hard malic acid in a new wine into lactic acid, and given that cheese is a dairy product, there was evidently a synergy of sorts. As to why the cheeses dulled nearly every other aspect of the wines, the study offered a few possibilities. It suggested that the fat molecules in cheese may coat the palate and reduce its ability to perceive astringency, which is the mark left by tannins. Similarly, the high salt concentration in cheeses may act to suppress the sourness associated with acidity.
As Heymann noted, these effects are not necessarily bad: If you don't like wines that are high in tannins or acidity, the cheese will actually be doing you a favor. It stands to reason that cheese can also make a bad wine taste less bad; if a wine has been abusively oaked, or if its fruit is a bit cloying, a nice wedge of Pierre Robert will presumably make it go down easier. Far from putting a damper on wine-and-cheese parties, as some articles suggested, the Davis researchers may have uncovered one reason for their popularity—those poignantly bland, day-glo orange cheese cubes could be making Two Buck Chuck taste, well, like Four Buck Chuck.
When I gently suggested to Heymann that the wines and cheeses used in the study were perhaps not top-shelf—New York cheddar has its place, but a cheese plate is generally not one of them—she didn't disagree. However, she also didn't think the results would be any different if the wines and cheeses were of a higher grade; no matter how fine the wine and pedigreed the cheese, the cheese would still diminish the intensity of the wine's flavors. She hastened to add that the fall-off in flavors caused by cheese, while statistically significant, is relatively small. The study didn't prove that red wine and cheese should never be paired; it merely debunked the idea that cheese somehow enhances a red wine's flavors.
This certainly squares with my experience. I've never known a red wine to improve on account of cheese, but in most instances the combination produces an agreeable taste, and that's all I'm really looking for. I drink red wine with cheese mostly because I want some cheese before dessert, or in lieu of dessert, and prefer to wash it down with something besides water. I think that's true for most people who make a habit of mixing red wine and cheese (although some seasoned palates have long eschewed drinking red wine with cheese because they don't believe the one flatters the other; Michael Broadbent, the famed British wine expert, has been on a white-wine-and-cheese kick for years). Generally speaking, finding the right wine to go with the fish or the lamb is a much bigger concern than finding the right wine to go with the Pont l'Eveque.
As for Heymann, her brief spin in the news cycle has left her with just one question. "If they have trouble with something this straightforward," she says of the New Scientist, "what are they doing on stem cells?"