I’ve written about cheese and wine matching many times over the years, often to point out that not all wines go with all cheeses, and that the tradition of matching red wine with ‘a cheese board’ is fraught with difficulty. With a plate full of cheeses covering the gamut of blue, goat’s, creamy and hard styles, red wine is rarely the optimum choice.
One of my favourite cheeses from the point of view of both taste and wine-friendliness, is quality Parmesan. With its protected designation of origin status, Parmigiano-Reggiano comes only from the north of Italy, its sweet and nutty flavour matching so well with many wines. But Parmigiano-Reggiano is given added interest because the cheese is sold with different levels of maturity, which in turn give the cheese subtly different aroma, flavour and texture characteristics. It is sold with a minimum of 12 months of ageing, but 18-, 24-, 36-month cheeses are labelled as such, even 48-month Parmesan appears in specialist cheese shops.
I was contacted recently with an intriguing proposition: did I want to taste samples of a cheese from Lithuania called Džiugas, produced by Žemaitijos Pienas, which is in a broadly similar style to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It too celebrates different maturation styles, with 12-, 18-, 24-, 36-, 48- and even 60-month examples. It is revered in Lithuania and comes from the town of Telšiai, where Žemaitijos Pienas employs almost 1500 people. They have opened a UK office, and their products are now on sale in Selfridges, selected Budgens, Sainsbury’s and many independent retailers.
A pasteurised cow’s milk cheese from cattle that feed on grass in the surrounding natural park, Džiugas has received Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status from the European Commission, and is lactose free and vegetarian. I don’t know too much more about its production, but thought it would be interesting to compare the four age-samples I received with some wines, and see where I found the sweet-spots. In style it certainly nods towards Parmesan, though it has slightly more waxy texture.
Džiugas ‘Mild’ 12-month
The youngest of the cheeses has a touch of crumble and nuttiness, a few crystals just beginning to form, but the smoothness and waxiness is much more pronounced than in the more mature examples. Džiugas describe the aroma as ‘hay meadow’ and I like that: something hay-like and dry, but fresh and flower/grass-like too. That suited this unsual Sauvignon Blanc very nicely: a single vineyard wine from Spain, it is partly fermented and aged in American oak, so there is creaminess and texture as well as pristine Sauvignon aromas and flavours.
Choice: Torres, Fransola Sauvignon Blanc 2017. £19.50 Fareham Wine Cellar
Džiugas ‘Delicate’ 24-month
As the cheese has matured it has become firmer and more friable, and Džiugas’ suggestion to snap off chunks to nibble is a very good one, especially with the right wine. The 24-month worked very well with the white wine, and with the Champagne, but was probably best with the Beaujolais. The crunch in the cheese has developed, as well as a slightly toffeed quality, but the lightness, forward fruit and good acidity of the Cru Beaujolais from Henry Fessy cut through and made for a really interesting combination in the mouth. The cheese is not strong, but does have personality enough to take on a low-tannin red.
Choice: Henry Fessy, Brouilly ‘Les Brulees’ 2017. £18.00 Waitrose Cellar
Džiugas ‘Gourmet’ 36-month
The 36-month really does hit a sweet spot, starting to develop lots of crunch and crystallisation, the colour starting to darken, yet still showing a little grassiness and hay-like freshness. Aromas are nutty and in the mouth it still has a supple texture with the balanced acidity and crumble keeping it quite fresh. I liked this with all the sample wines to be honest, but the two favourites were the Beaujolais and the Champagne. Large chunks of this, sliced into a bowl and served with a fine, fruity Champagne such as the Charles Heidsieck, with its beautifully mature, complex style, is a lovely combination.
Choice: Champagne Charles Heidsieck, Brut Réserve. £39.83 Master of Malt
Džiugas ‘Luxurious’ 48-month
Well, it’s hard not to love this nutty, mature example, rich in crunchy lactic acid salt ctystals, strong without being at overpowering, and still retaining buttery richness despite its dry, crumbly appeal. This too matched very well with Champagne, but the winner was a Colheita Port – a tawny with an aged, mellow character and yet still solid fruitiness. The sweetness of the wine sat well with the salt and sweetness of the cheese, suggesting this would be a fine end-of-meal course in its own right. Interestingly, Džiugas suggest a milky cappuccino as an unusual partner to this. An intriguing alternative!
Choice: Quinta do Noval, Colheita Port 2005. £42.00, Justerini & Brooks
Finally, in the chiller cabinet is a real treat: small dessert bars from the company called ‘Magija’ that are basically bars of chocolate-covered cheesecake, made with cheese curd. I didn’t try to match a wine to these, but they are indulgent and utterly delicious at £1 from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and other retailers.