Red, White and Bleu

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

Researchers use scientific methodology to pair wines and cheese.

winecheese.jpg Freerk Lautenbag

To host a truly classy affair, start with a dazzling venue, add a roomful of formal wear, throw in a quartet playing Mozart and finish it off with a dash of science.

At least that’s the formula of two researchers from Agriculture Canada who conducted a study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Food Quality, on finding ideal pairings between nine award-winning Canadian cheeses and 18 British Columbian wines.

Lead author Marjorie King and researcher Margaret Cliff wondered whether conventional wine-cheese pairings have any scientific basis—or whether we accept them because experts tell us the pairs are correct. The study validated the concern: Even with very strong cheeses, such as bleu cheese, experts disagreed on whether the wine or the cheese dominated pairings.

“There was a huge variation in the perception and that was almost the biggest learning we had,” King said. “Sometimes, I think, we invalidate individuals’ experience by telling them what should be good or what is good and we ignore the fact that everyone has a different range of experience and a different way of perceiving.”

According to King, the results suggest that if you can only buy one bottle of wine for a full spread of cheeses, you should get a Riesling or a sparkling wine; those wines are the most versatile, perhaps due to their acidic content, which helps clear a taster’s pallet. Also, her research confirmed conventional pairing wisdom: Stronger cheeses pair best with strong wines.

Twenty-seven wine and food experts who never knew science could be so delectable acted as subjects in the study, rating wine and cheese pairings on a 12-point scale. A score of six indicated a perfect match, a higher score indicated the wine dominated and a lower score indicated the cheese dominated the pairing.

While the study relies on the subjective impressions of the judges, the survey methods diligently address the statistical challenges posed by such an opinionated analysis. King said the hardest part of the research was devising and implementing a system where all wine-cheese pairs were tasted fairly, noting that the order in which cheeses are tasted affects how they are perceived.

“There still is a residual memory of what that last one is like, so you might be saying, ‘Well that was good, so this is not as good,’ or ‘That one was terrible, so this is better,’” King said. “So just the memory of the one you tasted before will influence how you grade.”

Therefore, King created a system where every judge tasted every cheese and every wine but not every pair, and each pair was tasted in every position in the order. Here’s how that works:

Imagine for a moment that you’re a Canadian wine and cheese expert selflessly donating your time to science. You are subjected to three blocks of testing: one for white wines, one for reds and one for specialty wines.  In each sampling, you taste six wines, so you have tasted all 18 wines after the three rounds. You also taste three cheeses per block—three cheeses for the whites, three others for the reds and the remaining three for the specialties.

The positions of the wines and cheeses within the tasting order have been carefully staggered. If you taste cabernet and camembert as your third pair within the reds, no other judge has done the same. Thereby, each pairing gets an equal treatment.

A little statistical magic—a calculation of how much each pair tends to deviate from the ideal match—and voila! King gets tasty results. Her cup runneth over, indeed.

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Originally published November 15, 2005

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