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Sensory science helps Cougar Gold find perfect wine partners

Posted by | February 13, 2015


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Riesling makes a good compliment for Cougar Gold cheddar, says Carolyn Ross, an associate professor and sensory scientist with the WSU/UI School of Food Science. Photo by Scott Weybright

I just bought a can of Cougar Gold cheese, and want to share it with my sweetheart on St. Valentine’s Day. All I need is the right wine to match.

I asked Carolyn Ross, associate professor with the Washington State University/University of Idaho School of Food Science, for choices on the best wines to pair with the university’s famous cheddar. In the process, I learned a little about the sensory science behind wine and cheese’s age-old romance.

Ross’s specialty is sensory evaluation and analytical chemistry.

“I look at how people perceive foods and wines,” she said. “Then I do analytical and chemistry work on flavors, aromas, tastes and textures, and bring that data together.”

Wine enhances flavors in many foods, said Ross, with cheese probably the most well-known partner. During a meal, its acid or astringent taste can balance fats and proteins. Yet, in food as in love, some pairings don’t always work out.

“When you look at sensory evaluation, some compounds suppress one another, others enhance one another,” said Ross. When it comes to pairings, she looks for wine and cheese co-existing in harmony—as opposed to one dominating another.

Ross points to studies by university and industry researchers that use a “Just Right” scale to rate wine and cheese matches. That scale ranges from extreme to moderate or slight dominance by cheese or wine, with an “ideal match” in the center.

“This is the true middle point, if that’s how you’re defining success,” Ross said. “Neither of them dominates.”

To match Cougar Gold’s salty, mild cheddary flavor, she recommends a white wine variety, Viognier. A grape native to France but now grown in Washington state, Viognier has exotic-fruit and floral qualities. Riesling, a somewhat sweeter white wine with pear, citrus, tropical fruit or mineral notes, is another good match.

For a red wine, Ross recommends a Pinot Noir. Less tannic, or astringent, than a Cabernet or Merlot, it matches Cougar Gold’s mildness nicely.

“Cougar Gold is not incredibly strong—it’s more mild and nutty,” Ross says. “It’s got a creaminess, too.”

Wines can also have a creamy quality. Such varieties, like Chardonnay, might end up competing with the cheese, as opposed to harmonizing, says Ross.

“You want to get the most out of both,” says Ross.

So, choose a pairing that lets wine and cheese enhance each other. For you, their flavors will live happily ever after.

• Select your own pairs: many websites can be found on wine and cheese pairings. Ross also recommends the book “Perfect Pairings” by Evan Goldstein.


—Seth Truscott, CAHNRS Public Relations/Communications Coordinator