Cheese for Sangiovese

by Hunter Fike

Sangiovese is one of the most commonly consumed wines in the world, and yet it is also one of the most under-appreciated. As the principal grape of Chianti, it is often associated with mass-produced table wine that comes in a jug and is hung above the bar in a wicker basket. However, when produced by an experienced vinter, it stands amongst the finest, most balanced and lush wines in the world. As underrated as the Tuscan Sangiovese can be, any non-Italian Sangiovese is, unjustifiably, held in even less regard. The classic cheese pairing with this Tuscan classic is, not surprisingly, Tuscan pecorino. But does tradition create the optimal pairing?

The first Sangiovese we tasted was a 2003 Chianti Classico Reserva from Il Piaggione. A sturdy 13% alchohol, it smelled of cloves and earth with subtle smokiness. The taste was dominated by the traditional flavors of sour cherry and accented by notes of black pepper and vanilla. Very refined and balanced. We opted first for the time honored pairing of aged Pecorino Toscano. While the pairing was functional, it was underwhelming. The pecorino offered little in terms of depth, and the wine eventually overran in the finish. To kick up the flavor, we opted for a Tuscan pecorino studded with black truffle, Cacio al Tartufo. The truffle contributed to the depth served to highlight the spice in the wine. The finish, which sealed the deal, yielded the extremely satisfying flavors of truffles, olives and earth.

For the sake of experimentation, we tried one more. Berkswell, a sheep milk cheese from the Forest of Arden in England, offers big, beefy flavors with a beautiful undercurrent of olive oil and sea salt. Inspired by Tuscan pecorino and Spanish Manchego, it cannot claim originality. Nevertheless, it warrants recognition. When paired with the Chianti, it accentuated the fruitiness of the wine, and unlike the Cacio al Tartufo, the finish was balanced, clean and harmonious.

The Verdict: Cacio al Tartufo, Berkswell

Next we tasted Pedroncelli, a Sangiovese from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma, California. At a potent 14.8%, vanilla dominated the aroma, but was underscored by subtle butter and allspice. The flavor profile mimicked that of the aroma, with a tad more mineral and a near-abbrasive tannin. While our initial idea was to taste something rich and creamy, Taleggio yielded poor results. What worked, quite admirably, was Fiscalini Cheddar from just outside of San Francisco. When lost in an inspirational conundrum, it is wise to stick with the adage “What grows together goes together,” and it certainly worked in this case. Despite a maturation of two years, the Fiscalini has maintained a sweet, creaminess. That texture helped to contrast the tannins, and produced a sweet finish of vanilla and cherry.

The Verdict: Fiscalini Cheddar

Each of the wines embodied their heritage. The Italian was refined and balanced with charming subtleties, intended to be consumed with food. The Californian, bigger, higher alcohol and more vibrant fruit, a blatant attempt appeal to the stereotypical “American” audience. Despite the drastic difference in styles, each of these wines found a satisfying pairing.