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Wine & Cheese Don't Make A Party

If US research is to be believed, wine and cheese isn't exactly a marriage made in heaven. Sourish Bhattacharyya  couldn't agree more, but he's also fascinated by the prospect of scientific research reducing the elements of subjectivity and cultural bias in wine and food pairings.

I'd always wondered why some people invite other people to wine and cheese evenings. Or why people ate cheese with anything other than a glass of port. Nothing kills the taste of good wine more effectively than a platter of mature cheese. Blue cheese and a fine red wine, in particular, is a match made in hell, yet hostesses with the mostest serve this combination with great elan at their parties.

Why can't people have Sauternes with cheese? Why can't we serve cheese, like the Italians, with honey mustard sauce and marmalade, or with grapes? If the purpose of cheese to act as an emulsifier, or a protective armour to save the stomach's sensitive lining from an alcohol attack, its role, I believe, must be limited to being served at the end of a meal, without a wine tagging along, before the dessert course. But I have never voiced these doubts on a table because I don't have the kidneys to challenge received wisdom. I'm delighted, naturally, that there's now a distinct possibility of the wine and cheese party finally coming to an end, thanks to a team of 11 expert tasters, all Americans, who have reported that their palates dulled when they ate an array of strong and mild cheeses before eight red wines of varying quality.

The cheese, according to them, suppressed almost all flavours, even strong ones. Their findings are to be published in March in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture .

The team concluded that the cheese proteins must coat the mouth, like they coat the stomach lining, deadening perceptions.  The researchers, led by Dr Hildegard Heymann from the University of California, Davis, asked the panel to compare cheap and more expensive bottles of wine from four different varieties without cheese.

They then had to taste the wine after a bite of eight different types of cheeses, from strong stilton and gorgonzola to the milder mozzarella and emmental. The tasters were asked to evaluate the strength of various flavours and aromas of the wine.

They found the cheese suppressed almost every flavour -- from sourness and astringency to berry and oak. The only aroma enhanced by the cheese was butter, researchers found. Stronger cheeses appeared to mask the wine flavour more than milder cheese. I believe the only form in which mozzarella agrees with a gentle, fruity wine, a well-made, nicely chilled pinot noir, for instance, is in the way it appears in a pizza. An emmental is a good match for a fruit-forward wine, and so is brie. Why waste a Bordeaux-style wine on a platter of cheese?

Dr Heymann suggests that fat from the cheese may bind to flavour molecules in the wine, or that it might coat the mouth. She said she decided to carry out the study because she had read many articles in the popular press about good food and wine combinations, but little scientific research had been published to support this wealth of popular writing.

"The research wasn't about bad or good combinations," she clarified. "We were instead looking at cheeses that may or may not affect the flavour of the wine." The cheese simply dulled the wine tasters' ability to experience the wine's subtleties, she said. My feeling exactly!

Predictably, the research report drew a strong reaction from Jeffrey Benson of UK's Wine and Dine Society. Disagreeing with the findings, he told the BBC's online edition, : "It depends on what wine you put with what cheese. There are always good pairings but you can't generalise. You can't just pooh-pooh the whole thing."

A wine taster for 35 years, Benson said: "Tasting wine is so subjective; it's like tasting food. Not everyone tastes the same things. But what I say is it's common sense. If you put a light fish like a grilled sole with a heavy wine it's not going to be very good." Combinations like brie and camembert and a sauvignon blanc or a mature chablis worked well, however.

A ground-breaking study is bound to ruffle feathers and evoke strong reactions, but it's interesting to find research scientists attempting provide a scientific rationale to wine and food pairings, which thrive on subjectivity. It'll be fascinating to see how far scientific research is able to give a direction to this subject, because it is also true that pairings are bound to be subjective, because, like thumbprints, no two palates are alike.

-- To read BBC Online's report on the research findings, click on to this link:

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