Wine and Cheese: Italy
Over 150 producers and 600 wines: Italy's wine diversity is unmatched compared to any other wine-producing country, embracing every region so that you could taste a different kind of wine every day throughout the year without ever repeating yourself and you would still have a long list of heavy, light, rich or white, pink, red choices to treat yourself to.
Cheese variety is no less diverse, being another important part of Italian culture. There are over 600 registered types of cheese along with local variations, which would indicate thousands of different kinds of cheeses. Cheeses are also sold at different stages of ripening, which further adds to the complexity. Annually, Italy produces about 1 million tons of cheese of which 21.5 kilograms are eaten by an average Italian.
Everyone knows that both wine and cheese go well together and when the right cheese is paired with the right wine, they result in a harmony of tastes and flavors.
However, to pick up a wine, ideally combined with a particular type of cheese is not easy at all, and the wrong combination can spoil the taste of both.
Further, we will have a deeper look into some of the most outstanding wines and find the most suitable cheese match for them to work out a list of recommendations that could make your wine-cheese experience even better and to provide a starting point for pairing Italian wines with Italian cheeses. Please note, that you do not have to stick to all the rules we provide here, choosing one of the recommendations would be enough.
Part 1. “Harmonious combination”
Tip: A core idea in regards to pairing wine and cheese is that they are meant to complement each other and not overwhelm one another.
For this wine and cheese journey let the territory of Franciacorta in Northern Italy be our first port of call. It sits between Verona and Milan and is Italy’s home of sparkling wine. A saying goes, that Italians cherish Franciacorta wine so much, that until recently they did not let it out of the country to be sold around the world. Franciacorta is a traditional-method sparkling wine of which 19 villages are authorized to produce, with perhaps the two best known being Adro and Erbusco. Wine production in the region goes back centuries, but the production of sparkling wine here appears to have started in the 1950s.
The climate of Franciacorta is fairly described as continental with a relatively warm growing season that allows the grapes to become riper. Riper grapes lead to wines that have a richer fruit profile, and the increased ripeness moderates the acid level. You can pair this marvelous variety of sparkling wine with white mold cheese or semi-hard young cheese. Still, with a bit of caution though (not to create too intense of a pairing), we would also recommend trying to combine it with Parmigiano Reggiano, which has a dry crumbly texture with tyrosine crystals and a deep complex flavor that would be well complemented by a fruity sparkling Franciacorta.
Part 2. “Local with local”
Tip: Regional pairings will almost always work well.
An example of a “local and local” harmony is a Chianti Classico that would make an excellent addition to your cheese platter if there is Pecorino Toscano cheese present as well, both originally from the Tuscany region in Central Italy. Chianti Classico is probably one of the driest wines of the Italian variety with its red fruits, bitter herbs, balsamic vinegar, smoked game flavors, it makes a harmonious combination with the hard Pecorino Toscano cheese made from ewe’s milk (Pecora meaning “sheep” in Italian).
Not long ago, the name Pecorino Toscano was given to any cheese made in Tuscany from ewe's milk sometimes mixed with cow's or goat's milk. The name is now reserved for pure ewe's milk cheeses made between September and June. It has a heady aroma, but it is delicate and sweet on the palate when fresh, making it perfect with fresh vegetables, figs, and fava beans. While aging, it becomes more intense and can be served with wild-flower honey, dried fruit and nuts. The balanced light taste of Chianti Classico makes wine an excellent accompaniment for red meat dishes and cheeses strong enough not to stay behind its taste and flavor.
Chianti Classico is the perfect wine to serve with aged Pecorino Toscano. This pair also meets the criteria for our next rule.
Part 3. “Strong with strong”, “light with light”.
Tip: The lower the cheese’s moisture content, the more concentrated its flavor and the more complex the accompanying wine should be. It might be useful to remember that a strong, hot, spiced, bitter or salty kind of cheese will be perfectly balanced by sweet wine, while an acidic wine will unnecessarily accentuate the bitterness. On the other hand, a semi-dry white wine is best accompanied by an acidic cheese and the best choice for a mild cheese would be a lighter wine. Tangy or salty cheese perfectly pairs with sweet and acidic wine, and an excellent suggestion for young fresh cheese would be sparkling fruity wines. All in all, the richer the cheese, the more full-bodied the wine needs to be and vice versa.
Moving to the South of Italy, let us stop in Sicily. Blessed with Mediterranean currents, African winds, and warm sunlight, Sicilian land is ideal for the cultivation of wines, of which we have chosen the local Anthilia wine. The grapes for this wine are harvested in September, after which the berries are soft pressed and fermented in steel tanks. Next, the wine is aged in cement barrels, then in bottles. It has a straw color with shiny highlights. The aroma is fresh, emanating ripe apples, peach and notes of citrus and summer herbs. A fruity taste with a refreshingly low acidity, in the long aftertaste the harmony of citrus peel can be felt. This kind of wine is a perfect match for Burrata, a young cheese made from buffalo milk, although it can also be made from cow's milk. Burrata is more likely not a separate sort of cheese, but a cheese dish. Burrata is prepared in the form of a bag, the walls are made of mozzarella or another young cheese filled with a mixture of cream and stracciatella (a variety of young cheese from the Apulia region). The “bag” is wrapped in asphodelus leaves. It is believed that the color of the leaves can determine the freshness of the burrata. Green leaves mean that Burrata is fresh. The word "burrata" translates as "from butter." Burrata appeared at the beginning of the 20th century in the Puglia region and its first samples were probably filled with sugar and butter. Now some villages still use such recipes, however, eventually the butter was replaced with cream and stracciatella. It is believed that burrata was originally a way for farmers to use the trim of mozzarella. Do not forget to eat your burrata bag quickly after opening.
Indeed, there are no hard and fast recommendations to be followed because, again, personal preference will be your guide. That is why our last but not least important rule is:
Part 4. “Rules can be broken”
Tip: Consider the context in which the cheese will be consumed. With brunch serve a light sparkling wine. For a midday snack serve rose, fruity white or a lighter red. In the evening, something heavier would be appropriate.
Remaining on the Sicily theme, another “must” for an Italian vino explorer would be white sweet Ben Rye Passito. The wine has a lively golden color with an amber tint. Its rich aroma with hints of apricot, dried dates, and rose petals is followed by a balanced, pleasant, elegant, fresh taste with notes of honey and burnt sugar. The spectacular contrast of the sweet heavy taste and light saltiness gives the wine a special charm. This kind of wine is perfectly combined with spicy cheeses, so it’s best to allow a soft spicy Gorgonzola Piccante, probably one of the most famous Italian cheese with blue noble mold accompany a Ben Rye Passito. It should be noted, though, that there are the two main varieties of the cheese, the other one being the Gorgonzola Dolce (or “sweet gorgonzola”), which is a younger variety of the spicy variant (also called “mountain gorgonzola”). Named in honor of the city of Gorgonzola, now a part of the Milan metropolitan area, where it was historically produced from cow's milk. However, at present Piedmont and Lombardy have become the leading areas of Gorgonzola production. In terms of production in Italy, it is second only to Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano.
Italy has an ”inexhaustible supply” of cultural heritage which even several tourist trips will never be enough to cover all it has to offer. Its history and culture are closely intertwined with the heritage of the entire world, there is a desire at least once in life to see this beautiful, amazing and unique country in all its charm, a unique appeal which has certainly inspired innumerable generations of humanity.
Unlike most other countries, where wine and cheese would only be considered a commodity or another line in general production charts. In Italy, wine and cheese have formed their own cultural heritage and thus a solid reason to visit this country if only for the sake of exploring the broad range of flavor nuances and aromas which can provide an even broader range for experimentation in order to find a wine and cheese pair that would suit your individual taste!