A Stinky Cheese Feast as a Backdrop for French Wine

6 Dec

            My sister Kim’s husband, Matt, and I are taking our ISG sommelier class together.  As we’ve been studying French wine, we opted for a French wine tasting with our annual Stinky Cheese Feast over the Thanksgiving holiday.  We agreed to each choose a red and white to contribute to the occasion.  But first some history on the Stinky Cheese Feast.  When I was growing up, a friend of my mother’s was living in Switzerland and gave my mother a Raclette grill as a Christmas gift.  Raclette is a Swiss cheese that is melted, either in front of a fire of on a grill like the one we were given, then scraped onto plates.  It is traditionally served with boiled red potatoes, gherkins and dried meats.

            It was the 1970’s in suburban America.  To us, “gourmet” cheese was just about anything that was wasn’t pre-sliced and individually wrapped. To Kim and me, Raclette was exotic, foreign and sophisticated.  In other words – we loved it.  Besides, what’s not to love about gooey melted cheese on crusty bread?  Kim and I each have Raclette grills now and it is a great way to enjoy an evening with family and friends.  There’s something just very homey about sitting at the table and “cooking” as you eat – it promotes conversation and it’s pleasant to linger at the table.  Matt is a very witty man and no time with him is ever boring.  Not long after he and Kim were married, he dubbed Raclette “Stinky Cheese”.  The moniker stuck and the Stinky Cheese Feast was born.  Our respective groups of friends look forward to our winter Stinky Cheese Parties.  They are, without exception, a big hit.

            For the wines, I have been interested in learning more about Burgundy, so I chose a Chanson Pere et Fils Puligny-Montrachet, a  Domaine Anne et Herve Sigaut Chambolle-Musigny and a Domaine des Beaumont Cherbaudes Gevrey-Chambertin.  Matt loves the southern Rhone and chose a Domaine Giraud Chateauneuf-Du-Pape and Chateau de Fouilloux Chateauneuf-Du-Pape Blanc.

            We started with the Puligny-Montrachet as it was chilled and the white Chateauneuf was  a bit warm.  We found this Chardonnay delicate and wonderful, with floral and lemon aromas and a hint of vanilla.   ButI think we should have shown some patience and waited for the white Chateauneuf to chill.  It just didn’t show well following the Puligny-Montrachet.  We learned in our class that white Chateauneufs are fairly rare and are not inexpensive.[i]  After the freshness of the Chardonnay, the white Chateauneuf tasted heavy, almost a bit syrupy.  We rejected the bottle, Matt even poured his into the sink, and decided to move on.  Out of curiosity the next afternoon, I pulled the bottle out of the refrigerator and re-tasted.  It had not been sealed well, so its condition wasn’t optimal.  But with my fresh palate, it was much improved over the day before with scents and flavors of honey, marmalade and spices.  It wasn’t my personal favorite, but we truly did the wine a disservice the evening before and I would be willing to try one again.

          The next bottle that we opened was the Giraud.  Unlike the Chateauneuf Blanc, it was very nice:  warm and juicy with aromas of stewed figs, raspberries and dark earthy spice.  I loved the wine, but to me, it didn’t go that well with the cheese.  In my mind, I think it would have been wonderful with roasted meat or a savory stew.  I thought it overpowered the Raclette.

            The Burgundies were also a bit of a disappointment, but for very different reasons.  Matt opened the Gevrey-Chambertin and the top edges of the cork were edged in “wine tar”.  We discussed the issue.  Neither of us had ever seen “wine tar” before, but we knew it wasn’t normal and guessed that it wasn’t good.  We decided not to open it and ask Karla, our sommelier school teacher, if we should return it.  I showed her the photo of the cork and she said that the wine had probably been exposed to heat in transit and that we were wise not to open it.  So while it was a disappointment not to taste it, we have $100 to try again another day.  The Chambolle-Musigny, on the other hand was very nice.  Our textbook uses words like “feminine”, “floral” and “elegant” to describe these wines.  I haven’t tasted many Burgundies, but we drink a lot of Oregon, California and New Zealand Pinot Noir.  It was certainly softer, and more subtle than its new World counterparts.  It smelled of red fruits with a soft minerality, and think it was even lighter in color than I generally expect.  Other than those basic observations, we didn’t really slow down to analyze it.  It was the fourth bottle, and we had abandoned our student critic personas and had slipped into that realm of relaxed candlelit conversation amongst friends.

            Did we increase our knowledge of French wine exponentially?  No.  But it was a grand evening- as always, a Stinky Cheese Feast to remember.

[i] See also an interesting Wall Street Journal article on white Chateauneuf-Du-Pape: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704654004575517793398717272.html


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