This will be the first in a series of posts/reviews about blue cheeses and how well they pair with white wines. Yes, I know, most people think of big, bold reds and steak with pairing blues, but the creamy tang inherent to most strong blues goes incredibly well with a number of whites that are often overlooked. In fact, to really get that sort of “Aha!” revelatory moment that comes from mixing moldy cheeses and wine, paring a blue with the right white wine is far more likely, to me at least, to bring that about. The frequent salt overtones of many blues really just pair up better with whites, including slightly sweeter ones. Tawny ports can do the same thing, if they’re old enough, but the big reds traditionally paired with great blues just leave me flat.
This will also be a rather odd review, since although the blue in this case is fantastic, its rewards pale in comparison to what happens when paired with confounding and exquisite 2015 Clairette Blanche from Tablas Creek Vineyard high atop the mountains west of Paso Robles. So, yes, while it IS about a blue cheese, it wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t had that wine to go with it. It made all the difference.
First off: I am a blue cheese nut. A devotee. An aficionado to the Nth degree. A bluecheeseaholic. If it’s moldy, I love it. If it’s moldy and pungent, I really love it. Blue cheese can be rather polarizing, in the truest sense of the word; very few people fall in that tiny patch in the middle of opinions that either love it or hate it.
Secondly: I love novelty, surprises and the obscure, even if it turns out that what I thought was obscure at first just was my lack of knowledge or awareness. That’s how I first stumbled upon Tablas Creek. While researching new places to taste, I kept coming back to a number of things. They’re about as far west on the wine map you can go before everything just stops (although our friends at Rangeland have the honor of being furthest out) and I kept eying varietals theyoffered that I’d simply never heard of. Picpoul? Vermentino? Tannat? Petit Manseng? Huh? Never heard of them, had to try them. So let’s see here…. on the edge of the Paso wine world? Check. Utterly foreign-sounding grapes I knew nothing about? Check. Let’s do this!
I learned a couple things by finally visiting. Tablas Creek isn’t as remote as you might think, once you become familiar with the layout of the roads and districts of the Paso Robles area. But that’s all right, because what they do with what I thought were oddball varietals they do with such finesse and creativity that I signed up the day we first arrived, back in 2010. And, as it turns out, most of the wine world doesn’t think they’re all that oddball after all. I’ve stayed with them because Tablas and their winemaker, Neil Collins, and his team of wizards, never fail to both impress and surprise, combining the traditions from their old world roots with France’s Château de Beaucastel and new world imagination and inventiveness.
Which brings me back to both this cheese and the wine I paired it with.
Bleu d’Auvergne is a big blue, in the best ways that blues can be big, but it’s not the absolute hammer that some of its relatives (Roquefort or Valdeón) can be. Tangy but creamy, run through with just enough mold, in this case from rye mold, and it has plenty of what I call the dry funk that typifies blues at the spot where the roof of your mouth, the back of the tongue and nasal palate come together. People who love blues love them for precisely this. You just can’t get it from anything else. It’s aged only for a few weeks, which is exceptionally short for a blue, but nonetheless offers the soft lusciousness that can typify some cheeses aged for far longer. You know you’re eating not just a blue but a quality one with d’Auvergne, and it’s a bit of a conundrum: young and still creamy and spreadable, strong but not the strongest, and run through with that ineffable quality that makes blues, well, blue. Not as salty as many blues, and quite buttery, and that makes it pair all the better with Tablas’s latest surprise.
Before I tried it, Tablas Creek’s 2015 Clairette Blanche was yet another of their wines I’d simply never heard of. Totally off my wine radar. A varietal from the Great Unknown. A grape that in France is used more as a base for blendings, not as a stand-alone single varietal estate bottling. A young white that came from a very odd harvest year of far less yield and a LOT of intensity. But how to describe it? Saying it’s like a Chardonnay with overtones of a Sauv Blanc, for example, is just skirting around the issue of how to express how this unique grape comes across on the palate and shortchanges its particular nature; it’s its own being, but I found that in terms of what I want to say, it’s both maddeningly distant and conspiratorially intimate. Sort of like a Vermentino? Kind of citrusy but still rich? Confoundingly exquisite in that, yes, it’s fruity and creamy, but in a way unique and singular to this fruit and how it was crafted into wine, and while I can urge you to try it for yourself, I just can’t express exactly why you should in the way I’d like to. It’s maddening, but wonderfully so, and that simply doesn’t happen very often.
Paired with the Bleu d’Auvergne, it was far more a case of the wine making the cheese better than the cheese helping the wine; the Clairette Blanc adds just enough fruit and acidity to bring out the best in the d’Auvergne and compliment its creamy nature. It’s got just the right finish to pair perfectly with that dry funk of the blue. Together with the wine and cheese, I also had some pecans and artisanal pepperoni, making a wonderful mix of spices and texture, but above all of those, the Clairette stood out like the true, unique star that it is. The cheese was great. The salumi and nuts worked well it. But the wine? The wine was something else and it completed what that cheese could and should be.
Just a quick adviso: they only made 50 cases, so run, don’t walk, for this exceptional result of a low-yielding, intensely fruity and lush harvest and a single varietal that you’re likely not going to find anywhere else from a California winery. It’s meant to be consumed young, so with the passion and the enthusiasm of Tablas members and fans, it’s not likely to last.