Move Over Membrillo
Fruit wines bring a light, bright, alternative to cheese pairings
It’s about this time of year when fear of scurvy begins to set in. The last time a local piece of fruit appeared in my farmers’ market was December, and even then those were some sad-looking apples. Domestic citrus were great until about a month ago; Chilean produce—well, you get what you pay for. (And I’m cheap.) But there’s another way to get a taste of summer’s bounty while waiting for the spring thaw: fruit wines. And there’s no better way to show them off than beside some cheese.
Of course, most wines are made from grapes, and those are fruits—but the grapes used to make wine tend not to be the sort that we eat, so grape wines tend to taste more like, well, wine than they do table grapes. (This, in the wine world, is a good thing: “grapey” is often a derogatory word, a euphemism for simple, little more exciting than grape juice.)
Wines made from other fruits are a different ball game. They tend to be made from the same sorts of fruits we’d eat, and good ones often taste like a pure distillation of the fruit from which they are made, clearer even than jam because they aren’t cooked.
This makes them less versatile than grape wines; after all, with how many dishes do you really want the direct flavor of, say, blueberries? But in the context of cheese, they work just as well as the more usual membrillo, quince paste, fig cake, or artful smear of jam, if not better: these wines are lighter, brighter, and fresher in flavor. The alcohol plays a part, too, not just in encouraging sociability around the table, but also in the more mundane task of cutting through the cheese fat to refresh the palate.
Most fruit wines are sweet, in keeping with the fruit from which they were made, but the most versatile ones for a cheese plate balance their sweetness with savory character, the same way a great piece of fruit counters its chin-dripping sweetness with the bitterness of its skin, seeds, or pit. Look especially for dry sparklers, which offer the advantage of scrubbing bubbles as well as delicate fruit flavor. Apple and pear are the most popular flavors in this genre (they’re often labeled hard ciders or, in the case of pears, “perry”), and the French styles, with their more delicate bubbles, can go with anything from fresh goat cheeses to hard, salty, aged cow’s milk wedges and tangy blues—in essence, anything that might appreciate a crisp slice of apple or pear.
Fruits that aren’t all that sweet in the first place also strike a similar savory-sweet balance. For example, the pomegranate dessert wine from Rimon, an Israeli company, has the sweet-sour flavor of the fruit’s garnet juice, but also the astringency of the pith between the seeds, a sensation akin to tannin in red wines. This is a fruit wine that can stand up to dense, flavorful cheeses; if you lack access to many Israeli cheeses, a wedge of Ossau-Iraty or Baigura, with its nutty, sheepy flavor, is just about perfect.
Cranberries can offer a similar balance, as can blueberries, with their high skin-to-pulp ratio. The blueberry dessert wine from Alba Vineyard in New Jersey is so spicy and herbal that it almost tastes as if the entire bush was vinified, a characteristic that left opinions around my table divided until it came into contact with a buttery wedge of water buffalo’s milk Casatica; suddenly, it seemed as natural as a glass of Lambrusco might in the cheese’s native Lombardy.
But when you’re looking for a pure shot of summer sun in the chilly depths of March or April, go for the sweetest fruit wines you can find. The Quebecois have made a tradition of leaving apples on their trees to press when they are frozen hard; the resulting ice wine is pure, fresh apple flavor frozen in time. A small glass is a virtual trip into an orchard of prodigiously ripe fruit; a swoop of Capriole’s creamy, lightly goaty Old Kentucky Tomme or a chunk of sweet-tangy cheddar, such as Avonlea, keeps the wine from feeling tooth-achingly sweet.
Washington State’s Pacific Rim Winery takes a different route to capturing summer’s pleasures, making a wine from raspberries grown in Mount Vernon and preserving their fresh flavor with a small addition of grape spirits. It’s unashamedly fruity, almost slutty in its lusciousness, which—on a cold night in Spring, still months away from fresh fruit, let alone real, warming sun—is exactly what the doctor ordered. Break out the triple-crème Brillat-Savarin and damn the calories—it’s a while to bikini season anyway.
Written by Tara Q. Thomas
Photography by Jen Beauchesne