Cheese and the Wines of Rasteau

I adore cheese. And wine, obviously. And food & wine more than anything. As a result I tend to be quite outspoken about cheese and wine pairings – more specifically about the widespread fallacy of partnering cheese with dry red wines.

In the real world, cheese and dry red wines don’t match nearly as well as we would like them to. To the contrary: most cheeses show more to their advantage paired with white or sparkling wines. Just think of timeless classics such as goat’s cheeses and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc; a nutty, mature Comté with oxidative Jura wines, or creamy soft-ripened white-rind cheeses with a glass (or two) of champagne.

Be that as it may, when I recently got the opportunity to cooperate with Flemish Cheese Master Eline Goossens of cheese bar Edgar in Ghent, to design a tasting with the (exclusively red) wines of Rasteau, I jumped at the challenge. It turned into a quest for pronounced, characterful cheeses and the juicy, fruity and spicy and herbaceous wines to match. An exciting gastronomic adventure!

AOC Rasteau and its Wines

The AOC Rasteau is one of France’s oldest denominations, and originally it was reserved for the famous Vins Doux Naturels. These are fortified red wines, to which alcohol is added after fermentation has started. This kills the yeasts – therefore stops fermentation – and leaves the residual sugar from the grape must in the wine.

Dry red wines produced in the same area used to find a home in the general Côtes du Rhône denomination, and later as Côtes du Rhône Villages Rasteau. But starting with the 2009 vintage, the dry wines are now also part of AOC Rasteau. They are generous, powerful and highly aromatic wines, in which especially Grenache, but also Syrah, Mourvèdre and other grape varieties contribute to its warm, fruity and herbaceous character. They are enlivened by juicy acidity, not overly tannic and rarely austere. Powerful, but with a friendly, accessible bedside manner, one could say.

Typical aromas and flavours to be found in the wines of Rasteau are: cherries, forest fruits, plums, pepper, star anise, chocolate and liquorice. As the wines age, they develop notes of leather, truffle and forest floor.

The Tasting

We designed this cheese and wine tasting as a six-course menu, featuring six pairs of wines, each time with a matching cheese, cheerfully presented by cheese master Eline.
(You can find the full line-up of wines and cheeses at the end of this article.)

We started with a pair of vintage 2014 Rasteau wines: subtly oaked blends of 70% Grenache, complemented with Mourvèdre and a touch of Syrah. The combination of a lighter, fresher vintage, oak maturation and a few additional years of age resulted in vibrant fruit, delicate herbaceous notes and a mild tannin structure. This made these wines excellent partners for the ‘Délice aux Herbes’, a sheep’s milk cheese with a crust of dried herbs and flower petals, which forged an additional link to the aromatic character of the wines.

For the next course, we selected two younger organic wines from 2016 – an excellent vintage in the Southern Rhône. Both wines blended 70% Grenache with 30% Syrah and were fermented with indigenous yeasts. Pure, fruit-forward wines, layered with dried herbs and spices, but also an undercurrent of animal and earthy notes, which added depth to the mix.
This duo inspired us to a daring pairing with Petit Gaugry from Burgundy, a powerful and pungent washed-rind cheese. It both underlined and balanced the natural, gamey character of these real and authentic, slightly more rustic wines.

Syrah, one of the complementary grape varieties in the Rasteau denomination, is known for structure, elegance and a complex aromatic personality with marked pepper tones. To play on this, we chose blends of about 50/50 Grenache and Syrah, and paired them with a sensational Pecorino con pepe – a hard sheep’s milk cheese speckled with black peppercorns. A fabulous combination!

We used the final dry wines of this tasting to illustrate style and vinification differences within the denomation. To this end we picked powerful Rasteau wines from the lauded vintage 2016, respectively blends of 80% Grenache with 20% Mourvèdre or Mourvèdre/Carignan. This style of wines needs aged and salty, preferably crumbly cheeses. Therefore Eline decided on the superb Mont Vully Réserve: a mature, semi-hard cheese from Switzerland, washed in Pinot Noir. The delicately peppery, ripe flavours of the Mont Vully, emphasised by its fine salt crystals, made for a highly refreshing and interesting pairing with this generous, voluptuous wine duo.

And because a tasting of Rasteau wines cannot possibly be complete without the legendary Vins Doux Naturels, we designed two more courses to showcase the sweet, fortified wines. With their vivacious acidity and rich flavour palette, they make first-rate partners for powerfully salty, sharp and tangy cheeses. Like port, these VDNs taste fabulous with blue cheese, so we just had to go with a Shropshire Blue here – a blue-veined, deep orangy-yellow, pungent cheese, which paired perfectly with the complex, fruity and spicy Vins Doux Naturels.

There are different styles of VDN in Rasteau: produced with or without oxygen contact. We wanted to showcase both, by putting a reductive vinification young (2015) ‘Grenat’ side-by-side with an oxidative ‘Tuilé’ from a much older vintage (2004). Both were made from 100% Grenache grapes, but they couldn’t be more different in looks ánd character.
The Tuilé had the deep amber colour of caramel and old bricks and displayed aromas of dried figs, nuts, spices, coffee and tobacco. It paired perfectly with Eline’s warm cheese preparation of Crémeux du Jura, topped with fresh and dried figs, nuts and a dollop of fig jam. Heaven on a plate!

Wines and Cheeses: the Line-up

Délice aux herbes
• Prestige 2014 Rasteau – Ortas – Cave de Rasteau
• Les Hauts du Village 2014 Rasteau – Ortas – Cave de Rasteau

Petit Gaugry
• La Planne 2016 Rasteau – Domaine Chamfort
• La Terre des Promesses – Rasteau 2016 – Domaine Wilfried

Pecorino con pepe
• Rasteau 2015 Domaine Caroline Bonnefoy
• Les Esqueryons Rasteau 2015 – Domaine Grand Nicolet

Mont Vully Réserve
• Rasteau 2016 – Domaine Pique Basse
• Les Adrès 2016 Rasteau – Domaine du Trapadis

Shropshire Blue
• Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau Grenat 2016 – Domaine des Escaravailles
• Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau 2016 – Domaine Elodie Balme

Crémeux du Jura with figs and nuts
• Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau Grenat 2015 – Domaine de Beaurenard
• Vin Doux Naturel Rasteau Tuilé 2004 – Domaine Grand Nicolet


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