Vino & Veritas: Wine & cheese

BY JOSH SOLOMON

Want to treat yourself? If so, go eat and drink at Upstairs On The Square. This new restaurant is a reincarnation of the classic Upstairs At The Pudding. In a new location at 91 Winthrop Street in Harvard Square, Upstairs has it all: great food, great service, great décor and a great wine list.

But better than all that, it also has Vinny.

You know how every once in a while you go out for a nice meal and are struck by how good the waiter or waitress is at what he or she does: attentive, but not overbearing; honestly enthusiastic about the menu; able to helpfully describe each offering and make suggestions? That’s Vinny. But Vinny Sapochetti, waiter extraordinaire, has another skill as well. Vinny is more than a waiter. Vinny is also the cheese man.

To be more precise, Vinny runs the cheese board at Upstairs On The Square. If you’ve never had occasion to try a cheese board, then all the more reason you should try Upstairs. Unfortunately uncommon, cheese boards are a wonderful way to put the finishing touch on a great dinner. Usually offered at the end of the meal, a good cheese board consists of a carefully selected array of cheeses from which to choose. For the cheese board at Upstairs, Vinny shops for interesting and fun cheeses from around the world. Then, when you order the cheese, and if you’re lucky enough to be there when he is working, Vinny will come to your table and describe each cheese — whether it’s goat, sheep, or cow; where it comes from; what it’s like. And this man knows more about cheese than you can imagine.

There is, however, one catch. Cheese can be difficult to match with wine. Many cheeses have distinct aromas and flavors, some quite pungent, that can clash with wine. To a certain extent you just have to experiment. But in an attempt to grapple with the mystery of cheese-wine pairing, I sat down last week with Vinny for a tasting.

Vinny came armed with three cheeses. All cheeses on Vinny’s cheese board, by the way, sell for $14 for four slices and $3 for each slice beyond that. The first was called Bon de Gatine. It was a goat’s-milk cheese from the Loire valley. I’m particularly partial to goat cheese, but this one was particularly good. It was dense and fairly young. Vinny paired it perfectly with a 2001 St. Micheal-Eppan, Sanct Valentin, Sauvignon Blanc, which is available by the glass at $13.50, or for a “taste” at $4.50 (Upstairs offers all of its by-the-glass wines in a smaller portion called a “taste,” which is a great way to try several wines without having to buy a bunch of glasses). Like many sauvignon blancs, the wine was highly acidic with a grassy and grapefruity flavor and a flinty nose. The pairing worked well mostly due to the wine’s acid. The cheese, while relatively mild, left the mouth with a heavy, coated feeling, which the wine’s acidity cut right through. In general, Vinny explained, Sauvignon blanc’s high acidity is perfect for cleansing the palate of heavy cheeses and getting your mouth ready for the next bite.

The next cheese was a Bianco Sotto Bosco, a Piedmontese cheese made with a mixture of goat and sheep milk. Decadently full of black truffle pieces, it had a flaky texture with floral aromas. Its flavor was dominated by the truffle, which gave it an intense, woodsy taste. We tried it with a 2000 Enzo Boglietti, Roscaleto Barbera d’Alba. Like the cheese, this red wine from the Barbera grape comes from Piedmont. It sells for $14 a glass and $5 a taste. It had a powerful, purple nose that featured black cherries and a hint of meat. To the taste, it was softer than the nose suggested, oaky, and acidic, with dark fruit flavors (plum?). Its low tannin made it easy to drink. It managed to be interesting without clashing with or overpowering the wonderful cheese.

The third cheese was completely different from the others (that’s the beauty of a cheese board — you can mix and match whatever you like). Called Gransardo, it was a sheep’s cheese from Sardinia. Unlike the others, it was hard and dry. It had a rustic, sharp smell. To my novice cheese-tasting abilities, it seemed a mix of parmesan and pecorino. It had an almost rusty flavor, which sounds bad but was quite good. At first, we tried it with a 1996 Fennochio Barolo ($20 for a glass, $7 for a taste). Its nose was complex and interesting: mushrooms, leaves and a hint of anise. It was tannic, like most Barolos, and had an earthy taste with flavors of dried fruit. While the Barolo was great on its own, we actually found that it did not work so well with the Gransardo, as the cheese significantly overpowered the wine’s subtle tastes. So we did some switching around and found that the Gransardo worked well with the Barbera, and the Barolo with the Bianco Sotto Bosco.

Now, it is possible, maybe likely, that these particular pairings will not be available when you go to Upstairs On The Square. As he runs low on a cheese, Vinny goes shopping, and you never know with what he will return. So I asked him for some general principles to add to the specific pairings we tried. He said that white wines should generally be reserved for younger cheeses. Heavy cheeses, like most goats, work particularly well with acidic wines. While it is sometimes hard to pair dessert wines with cheese (remember, the cheese board comes post-dinner), blue cheeses sometimes do work, as the sweetness of the wine can take the edge off the intense blue-cheese taste. Alternatively, a sweet wine that is only lightly sweet (say, a moscato d’asti), will often work with many types of cheese.

Beyond those rules, there is one tactic, of course, that is sure to work: just ask Vinny.

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