Matching local wines to local foods is the oldest and most reliable strategy for wine and food pairing - if they've been enjoyed together for hundreds of years, what could be wrong with that? Red Burgundy and Époisses easily meet this criteria, with both extremely popular in Burgundy.
Another classic wine and food pairing strategy is to match complementary or harmonious elements such as flavor, acidity, etc. Époisses is a washed rind cheese, its rind periodically washed with Marc de Bourgogne while maturing which gives it its distinct stinky pungent smell2. And since an open Époisses will get you kicked off a bus in France2 for its turdish wafts, it looks like we've ticked another box as well, at least according to Mr. Hanson.
On paper, this looks like a match made in heaven (or at least in a French truck stop). So what makes it notorious?
Most of the resistance to this fabled pairing has come from the UK and USA, which may be considered odd given France's vs the UK's and USA's historical reputation for cuisine. In the UK, Michael Broadbent, one of the first Master of Wines, takes it further, asserting that red wines and cheese simply don’t go together. Francis Percival, a British cheese monger who has conducted several high profile wine and cheese pairing experiments would agree: “whatever the rationale, matching red wine to cheese is only ever an exercise in damage control.” And he’s particularly critical of this pairing, asserting that “white or red Burgundy is horribly assailed by their local Époisses.”4
British food & wine matching expert Fiona Beckett echos this critique: “The locals like to eat it with red Burgundy (the natural terroir-based match as it's also made in the Côte d’Or) but in my view it almost always slaughters the wine.”5 In the USA, Eric Asimov also slams it: “An inexpensive 2009 Burgundy, a Côtes de Nuits-Villages from Joseph Drouhin most definitely clashed with an Époisses, the luscious, oozing cheese of Burgundy, belying the oft-held belief that cheeses and wines from the same region belong together.”6
We conducted a before and after tasting to see how red Burgundy is affected by the Epoisses. We also tried a white Burgundy, Marc de Bourgogne and a Gewürztraminer to see how they fare. All of these are relatively inexpensive as we wanted to pair everyday wines and were obviously afraid, given the above critiques, to ruin great wines in this experiment!
This is a raw milk cheese from Alain Hess in Beaune – the real deal and impossible to get in the UK or USA since only pasteurized ones are imported. It was slightly aged, pungent and delicious. €10
2016 “La Pairelle” R. Mathelin et Fils Macon Villages €9
A very tasty and charming Chardonnay: floral and lightly fruity with apple and peach flavors and a slightly minty-mineral finish.
Époisses effect: The flavors are complementary but the wine intensity is diminished.
2016 Les Dames Huguettes Rene Tardy & Fils Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits €12
A young and brambly Pinot Noir: 2016 was a difficult year in Burgundy, especially for the reds so I probably shouldn’t have hoped for much. It tastes a bit raw, with red currants dominating the nose and palate, a touch of blackcurrant but otherwise balanced with decent acidity.
Époisses effect: Oddly, the wine seems a little bit fruitier but the cheese mostly eclipses the flavor. There is no serious “clash” as in the wine tastes metallic or overly sour as in other disastrous wine and food pairings.
2016 Wolfberger Gewürztraminer Vin d’Alsace €8
This is a supermarket wine and very typical. If you were teaching a class and wanted an example of what Gewürztraminer tastes like this would be it. Aromatic? Check. Lychees? Check. Rose? Check. Full Bodied? Check. Soft acidity? Check.
Époisses effect: In the same class, this would be a great example of a harmonious pairing. Wow. Supermarket Gewürz. Who knew?
Marc de Bourgogne
Lucien Jacob €24
We included Marc de Bourgogne since it’s used to wash the rind of the Époisses in the cheese making process and is recommended by Fiona Beckett and Francis Percival among others. Marc de Bourgogne is a brandy made from the skins, pulp, seeds and stems of wine grapes – everything that’s leftover from the winemaking process. It’s like Italian grappa but deeper in color and slightly more mellow.
Époisses effect: It has no problem overpowering the Époisses but strangely achieves some sort of intense harmony. If the other pairings were classical music, this is screaming guitars.
Despite its reputation, Époisses is not the strongest cheese, but what it lacks in power it makes up for in tenacity. Its relentless aroma and flavor simply dominates a wine of finesse like Red Burgundy. Still, this is not stopping the French. In Burgundy, an Époisses would traditionally be served after the main course with the remains of the wine from that course, usually a Red Burgundy. In this context, it’s not a complete disaster since you’ve already been able to taste and enjoy the wine.
As for the other pairings, they all worked at least reasonably well. The White Burgundy is a little overpowered while the Marc de Bourgogne pairing is symbiotic in a brutal way. The grocery store Gewürztraminer was the idiot savant – we were blown away by how well it worked – and probably why some people rave about Gewürz as the ultimate cheese wine.
Also, it appears that the suggested wine pairings from The Cheeses of France chart (see detail above) are spot on: Bourgogne Blanc and Bourgogne Rouge are the recommended local pairings but the best suggestion is a big white wine like Gewürztraminer (as indicated by the icon).
1From Anthony Hanson's epic Burgundy, published in 1982. He changed his mind in 1995 in the second edition of the book. Read more in Tim Akin's entertaining oldie but goodie: Something stinks. . .
2Only in France can can you make something stinky by washing it.
3Common knowledge, untested by me and very possibly apocryphal.
4Francis Percival World of Fine Wine Issue 16 2007 "Culture Shock Principles for Successful Wine-and-Cheese Pairing" pg 142-3
5Fiona Beckett Matching Food and Wine Match of the Week: Époisses and Marc de Bourgogne
6Eric Asimov New York Times Cheese and Red Wine, Together Again