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Wine and Cheese Pairing, 2016


The idea began with our desire to support “ArtStart,” a local Santa Rosa non-profit that provides opportunities for high school student artists to create and install public art projects.  Our solution was to donate to the auction a wine and cheese pairing for 14 people.  After a successful $1,500 donation, it was now time to create a

The Wines

The Wines

memorable experience that exceeded the donors expectations.  As always, the wine selections would be easier than determining and acquiring the proper cheeses.  Even living in Sonoma County where many fine artisan wine and cheeses are produced, research to find unique pairings would require some effort.

To facilitate the outcomes to 1)discover the aromas and flavors of each wine and cheese, 2)understand their backstory and 3) promote discussion and select favorites, we distributed comments from winemakers and sommeliers that assisted us through “power of suggestion.”  Seven bottles opened, seven cheeses unwrapped, we were ready to start the global culinary journey.


Pairing #1:  Old World vs New World Chenin Blanc

Chenin blanc, originating from the Loire Valley in France, is one of the most versatile wines in the world,

2014 Huet Le Haut-Leiu Vovray Sec

comfortable as a dry, semi-dry, sparkling or dessert wine.  Grown extensively in South Africa, Australia and California, the grape has made a huge comeback over the past few decades. We compared the waxy richness and minerality of the 2013 Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc, grown in San Benito County and fermented in concrete eggs at the Russian River Valley winery with the rich 2014 Huet Le

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012 San Benito County

Williams Selyem Chenin Blanc 2012 San Benito County

Haut-Leiu Vouvray Sec, a classic semi-dry from France with stone fruit flavors throughout the finish.  No favorites here as the group decided that the two wines were different but equal, experiencing the diversity of the grape.

The two wines were paired with Valencay (Val-on-say), a tangy goat cheese from central France and a



young Mahon from the island of Minorca in Spain, both salty with an appealing creamy, nutty flavor.  Young, as opposed to aged Mahon (mah-ON), is an accessible semi-soft cheese that becomes hard with distinct salt crystals as it ages.  Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, locals explain that even the grass and cow’s milk from the island is salty.  My usual preference is for the young Mahon, but the citric tanginess of the of the Valencay, rare to the US, was a unique new discovery for all.

Pairing #2:  “California Chardonnay and Spanish Goat Cheese”

Sonoma County’s Kosta Browne Winery consistently creates, arguably, the best pinot noir in California, earning Wine of the Year status from Wine Spectator magazine with their 2011 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast.  The winery has recently begun producing a rich, Burgundian-style chardonnay from the Russian River Valley that epitomizes their high

2012 Kosta Browne "116" Chardonnay Russian River Valley

2012 Kosta Browne “116” Chardonnay Russian River Valley

standards.  This pairing features the 2012 Kosta Browne Chardonnay “116” RRV, named after the highway that meanders through the Sonoma Valley, that combines nice aromas of lemon, pears and toast with stone fruits and lemon curd flavors and a lingering mineral finish. To augment these flavors, we chose a pasteurized goat cheese from northeastern Spain.



Garrotxa (gah-ROW-cha), an area in the Catalonia region, north of Barcelona, is home to a collective of goat farmers, many of whom fled urban life to revive the local cheese making trade. The semi-aged, semi-soft cheese has a somewhat sweet, nutty flavor with hints of cooked milk.  We used the rich texture of the wine to compliment the buttery sweetness of the cheese to create a celebration on the palate.


Pairing #3:  “All-American Classic”

One of this country’s most awarded cheeses, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Farms in Wisconsin won Best Of Show by the American

2013 WALT Pinot Noir "The Corners" Anderson Valley

2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley

Cheese Society in 2001, 2003 and 2010, the only cheese to do so. After careful consideration of pairing this creamy, nutty, caramel flavored cow’s milk cheese with the Kosta Browne Chardonnay, we opted for the earthy 2013 WALT Pinot Noir “The Corners” Anderson Valley, knowing from experience that they would compliment each other perfectly. From the northerly Mendocino County, WALT is owned by the Napa Valley’s Hall Wines team and responsible for the production of their pinot noir releases. This 2013 vintage, awarded 92-pt by James Laube from Wine Spectator magazine, has a floral, clove bouquet with a rich, vibrant cherry-cola flavor that lingers throughout the finish.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

A rare raw cow’s milk cheese in the US, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve comes from a single herd and only from the pasture season, beginning in late spring through the fall.  The evenings most creamy, well-integrated cheese with a young, but luscious pinot noir release was an instant hit with our guests and stood out as the best pairing.


Pairing #4: “The Island Pairing”

Geoffrey and Allison Wrigley Rusack have, for decades, produced quality wines in the Ballard Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley, near Solvang.  Through Allison’s family connections, they gained access to five acres on the old Rancho Escondido site on the island where they began, in 2010,

2012 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island

2012 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island

producing pinot noir, chardonnay and a half acre of a very special varietal.  Geoffrey received permission to excavate some cuttings from ancient vines on Santa Cruz Island, another of the Channnel Islands.  Analysis determined that they were old zinfandel vines, later transplanted to the Rancho Escondido site.

Having an opportunity to secure one bottle of each varietal annually, the scents of cranberries and old leather foreshadowed the youthful maturity of the 2013 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island (Bottle #827), fruit-forward with a complex flavor profile strong enough to compliment aged Mahon (mah-ON),

young Mahon, aged Mahon

young Mahon, aged Mahon

a hard, textural cheese, salty with toasted nuts and caramel flavors that thoroughly coat the palate, pairing best with a rich, deep flavored wine like zinfandel.


Pairing #5:  “Nearly French”

Randall Grahm, founder/winemaker at Bonny Doon Vineyards, is one of the patriarchs of the California Rhone Rangers, replicating the famous blends from Chateaunef-du-pape in France’s southern Rhone Valley.  The

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve

syrah/grenache dominant 2010 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant Reserve en bonbonne, is a rich, savory red blend with deep berry and tobacco aromas followed by herbal flavors and a long, silky finish.  Awarded 92-pt by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is uniquely aged in 5-gallon glass bottles, the same ones from yesterday’s water coolers.  The right cheese to compliment this wine was never in question.

From France’s Basque region near the Pyrenees Mountains, the semi-soft Ossau-Iraty (OH-so ear-ah-TEE), a very wine compatible sheep’s cheese, has complex brown butter, caramel flavors that seem to soften deep



flavored wines like syrah, especially one as earthy and savory as the Le Cigare Volant.


Pairing #6:  “Dessert!”

The last and sweet pairing of the evening featured a 2010 Longoria Syrah Port “Vino Dulce” from Santa Ynez Valley with the creamy, buttery Rogue River Blue

Rogue River Blue

Rogue River Blue

from southern Oregon’s Rogue Creamery.  The port-style wine, available in Longoria’s Los Olivos tasting room expressing cherry, vanilla and spice flavors, is often served with chocolate desserts but the Rogue River, lacking the aggressive bite of most blue’s and augmented by sage honey, was a memorable compliment to the wine and the experience.

Of course, there were no winner or losers, just some of the world’s finest cheeses carefully matched with fine wines, a culinary delight beyond reproach.  Many of these cheeses are available at various gourmet markets, often providing personalized assistance with selections.  As a

2010 Longoria Syrah "Vino Dulce" Santa Barbara County

2010 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” Santa Barbara County

backup, there are many reliable websites that can offer the most rarest of cheeses.  I also often consult food columnist Janet Fletcher’s “Cheese and Wine – A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying” and “Cheese Course” by Fiona Beckett as resources for our pairings.

Penedes and the Spanish Cava Trail



Considered one of Spain’s major wine-producing regions after Rioja, Penedes, located south of Barcelona, is best known for cava (sparkling wine) production.  Today, the region has expanded its range to exceptional white varietals and nice earthy reds.

We often refer to sparkling wine as champagne, when if fact that name is only permitted if referencing what is produced in the Champagne region of France.  While made in the same “methode champenoise”, the sparkling wine of Spain is called “cava” and there are an abundance of producers in Penedes.  I recently had the opportunity to explore the “cava trail” in this region and taste cava at Pares Balta, who also create a number of quality still wines.

Part of Catalonia, Spain, Vilafranca del Penedes is situated between the steep Monserrat Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. IMG_0916While cava’s ancestry is traced to the nearby Codorniu estate, Penedes is where it thrives today.

Widely considered one of the top growing areas, Penedes is a designated Denominacio d’Origen (DO) for wine and cava and one of the most ancient viticulture regions in all of Europe. A blessing in disguise, the generally poor-quality soils, heavy in limestone and fossil matter, can and do stress the grapes into highly concentrated flavors.

As with champagne, the blended white grapes are introduced to sugar and yeast in the bottle.  The second fermentation, lasting 12 months, creates carbon dioxide and those wonderful bubbles.  While viura is the dominant white grape in the Rioja, little known varietals like parellada, xarel.lo and macabeo are blended for both cava and still wines and seem to respond well to both methodsIMG_0860 of fermentation.

Following the morning at a monastery atop the Monserrat Mountains, we began our tour and tasting at Pares Balta, who have farmed the same vineyards since 1790.  The family has planted over 200 hectares (approx. 500 acres) in a unique terroir influenced by the coastal breezes and calcareous soils with an abundant of limestone at the surface.

Pares Balta has always practiced organic and biodynamic farming, but received certification in 2004.  While the winery is still owned by the grandsons of the founder, the winemaking and oenology is the responsibility of their wives, Maria Elena Jimenez and Marta Casas.  Rooted in cava, Pares Balta, over the past 25 years, have opened out to nearly 20 releases, a majority of which are red wines.

In a misty rain, our hostess, June Ordaz gave us a quick tour of the biodynamic, sustainable vineyards.  Organic farmers are fascinating in IMG_0870their creativity for plant survival such as hanging female hormones on the vines to falsely attract bees to help with pollination. Also, the wild grasses and legumes planted between the vines keeps the soil loose and re-charged with nutrients.

With one exception, all Pares Balta wines are estate grown.  All varietals are harvested August through October and are fermented individually for 3-5 years before blending. The results would soon be revealed as we began our tasting.

A blend of three white grapes, the Pares Balta Cava Brut is very fruit forward for a sparkling wine.  Parellada, the dominant grape known for adding floral notes to wines, certainly lived up to its reputation here. This cava is dry, but full-bodied and a good value for under $20.

Pares Balta Cava Brut

Pares Balta Cava Brut

With fermentation in stainless steel tanks, the Pares Balta Blanc de Pacs exudes a nice crispness and, once again, the parellada adds floral notes to the bouquet and orchard fruits to the flavor. By contrast, the Pares Balta Calcari 2009, utilizing the xarel.lo grape exclusively, has a negligible nose, but full flavors and a higher, yet balanced acidity.

Blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, the deep red Pares Balta Rose’ de Pacs rose’ offers an interesting balance of sweet and savory flavors.  The unique creamy texture would pair well with a nice Humboldt Fog goat cheese from northern California.

Another value at under $20, the cabernet sauvignon and Grenache-blended Pares Balta Mas Petit 2009 has soft fruit aromas and flavors with a unique minerality and gentle spices throughout.  This wine is both smooth and accessible to most palates.


Pares Balta Mas Petit 2009

A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc, the winemakers use malolactic fermentation to create the soft elegant flavors of the Pares Balta Mas Elena 2010, an excellent value for the price. Hints of spice from the nose through the finish add complexity to the wine.

Our final tasting was an import from Priorat, Spain’s other significant wine region, known for unique slate and quartz soil called licorella that adds minerality to the flavors.  Blended primarily with Grenache (60%), carinena (25%) and small amounts of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, the 2007 Gratavinum Priorat 2 Pi R (the mathematical formula) has a nice earthiness throughout that generated comments from other tasters about the aromas and flavors of mushrooms balanced with raspberries and other fruits.md_21113_c5cfdadad6b4c17c42397b634f3e39b2

The Gran Reserva designation of this wine requires that the juice spend two years in the barrel and another three in the bottle. Although it has a higher price point, the “2 Pi R”, represents the finest example of why Priorat wines are considered among the most expressive in Europe.

The regions of Rioja, Penedes and Priorat, along with Ribera del Duero, make up the “Big Four” of Spain’s wine production.  Ribera del Duero, on the northern plain north of Madrid, produces bold tempranillo-based red wines such as Emilio Morro, that are occasionally available locally.

I have found cava brut and other Spanish wines from various regions at various outlets.  Further exploration of regional stores such as K&L Wines in Hollywood or Monopole Wines in Pasadena can uncover a plethora of still and sparkling wines and serve as a resource for discovering good values.


Pares Balta Mas Elena 2010

Robert Parker certainly predicted the world’s prolonged interest in Spanish wines that will only get better and more approachable in time.  The Spanish soils are pushing these grapes in unique directions, resulting in consistent characteristics that experts can identify blindly. Anyone interested in good wine owes it to themselves to delve into what the excitement is

with June Ordaz of Pares Balta

with June Ordaz of Pares Balta

all about and experience the wines of Espana.