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Favorite Lodi Zinfandel and cheese matches

The air is still a little nippy, if not downright damp, which  is why I, for one, tend to tucker down in the safety of my four walls at night. Preferably with a bottle of Zinfandel.

I drink Zinfandel with almost everything, including my favorite foods, such as spaghetti and meatballs, pan fried pork chops, Asian spiced barbecued baby back ribs, hibachi grilled salmon, or just plain pasta and garlic. How do you spell comfort?

Zinfandel, as it were, is also surprisingly good with cheese. Especially the gourmet type cheeses you find at Cheese Central, the artisanal cheese store owned by Cindy Della Monica, located in Downtown Lodi.

If you ever catch Cindy herself at her store, go ahead and ask her about her favorite cheese and wine matches. Her experience is such that she is a world class expert on that subject.

I have my own favorites, with an emphasis on the plurality of that word. I will say this, though, which may contradict the live-and-let-live opinion of many a wine and cheese lover: There are certain wines that go better with certain cheeses than others, and vice-versa.

Would you, for instance, boil up some spaghetti to go with beef stew? No, you wouldn't, because rice or potatoes is a better match. For the same reason, you put ketchup on hot dogs but not ice cream, and spaghetti tastes better with sauces made with tomatoes and olive oil rather than curry or chimichurri. Certain things make sense.

So before going into a few thoughts on specific Lodi Zinfandel matches with cheeses, here are two basic observations on wine and cheese matching in general:

1. A surprising number of cheeses go better with white wines rather than reds. In fact, if your favorite cheeses are the pale colored cheeses that taste best when they're young and fresh—think mozzarella, Havarti, feta, and many of the endless variations of goat or soft ripened cheeses you find in every store—you are probably better off drinking white wines with these cheeses. They just go better, like spaghetti goes with tomato sauce.

2. If, on the other hand, you enjoy firmer, deeper colored, richer flavored cheeses that are made that way because they are aged for a good amount of time before they are sent to market, you're probably better off with a red wine.

I realize that the two aforementioned points smack of "hard and fast" rules (and who likes "rules?"), but there is a little bit of science behind it. It is basically because cheeses that see a little aging have elevated amounts of amino acids, or glutamates, that give them the deeper, more savory flavors that you expect out of them. These kinds of cheeses have an easier affinity with red wines because red wines are made by fermentation in contact with grape skins, which also boosts savory flavors.

More specifically speaking, aged cheeses have the type of crystallized, savory taste often described as umami (see our post, Deconstructing umami in wine and food contexts). Deepening of umami sensations through the aging process is why cheeses such as Parmigiano, Manchego and cheddars are often grated onto foods like pasta—they are used to help accentuate flavors in saucy pasta dishes.

The world, needless to say, is overflowing with more wines and cheeses than anyone can need. We're spoiled rotten when it comes to choices; even just in Lodi, where over 100 grape varieties are commercially grown.

Zinfandel, however, is Lodi's signature grape. It just so happens that Zinfandel is also one of the most food-versatile wines of any color in the world. It's ideal with food because it is almost always brimming with fragrant berry-like fruit yet is zesty with refreshing acidity while almost never too heavy or drying with tannin, the bitter component derived from the seeds, stems and skins of red wine grapes.

Therefore, I want to talk specifically about favorite Lodi Zinfandel and cheese matches. Here are a few, singled out by Della Monica as some of her own favorite cheeses...

Mimolette with bright, zesty east side Lodi Zinfandels

France’s Mimolette cheese, made from cow’s milk, comes in an orbular shape and tanned crust; and when you slice into it looks, for all the world, like a cantaloupe, with its vivid orange flesh tinted by annatto, with a lush, round yet moderately firm, faintly hazelnutty flavor somewhat like Edam, with a savoriness similar to a good Parmigiano. 

I have read in some places that Mimolette is ideal with soft, fruity white wines such as Moscato or Chenin blanc-based white wines from France (i.e., Vouvray); but honestly, I think that wouldn't be my first choice. In my mind, it is precisely the aged quality of this cheese that gives it a deep enough flavor to embrace the sturdy yet bright, lively taste of Zinfandels grown on the east side of the Lodi appellation.

What is "east side" Lodi Zinfandel? Geographically, it's Zinfandels sourced from vineyards east of the historic railroad tracks running through the center of Downtown Lodi. The line marked by the tracks is significant because the soils on the east side of Lodi are sandier and less loamy than the soils on the west side. Therefore, grapes such as Zinfandel grow as smaller clusters, with smaller berries, than they do on the west side. This makes for more fragrant Zinfandels that are a little zestier in natural acidity. 

East side Lodi Zinfandels may have the same alcohol content as west side Lodi Zinfandels, yet they always taste lighter and perkier because of their natural acidity, which is why they are so, so good with a cheese like Mimolette. Perfect examples include any brands specializing in east side Zinfandel such as Perlegos Family Wine Co., Harney Lane Winery, Mettler Family Vineyards (especially this family's vineyard-designate bottlings), Heritage Oak WineryStonum Vineyards, LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards (particularly the Langes' vineyard-designate Starr Vineyard), or Klinker Brick Winery (especially the Felten family's Marisa Vineyard bottling).

Other cheeses that are delicious with fragrant, zesty styles of east side Lodi Zinfandel: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Hornbacher, Manchego, Pecorino Romano, and Beemster Royaal Gouda.

Bermuda Triangle with fuller bodied, earthy west side Lodi Zinfandels

The triangular shaped Bermuda Triangle cheese is a modern day style of Chèvre made from goat’s milk, and crafted by Cypress Grove in Arcata, California. As such, it is almost creamy soft, yet slightly sharp, tangy, and pungently earthy/grassy (as goat’s milk cheeses tend to be). It is also crusted and infused with silvery streaks of vegetable ash, which accentuate the earthy qualities in distinctive fashion.

While most Chèvres are white wine cheese, what makes Bermuda Triangle a different ball of wax is its infusion of earthy qualities giving it savory, umami qualities, which calls for zesty red wines. This is a match for west side Lodi Zinfandels because of the richer loamy profiles of the soils on this side of town, giving many of the wines fuller, deeper, darker fruited qualities with discernibly earthy/loamy, often mushroomy or brothy qualities—the latter sensory attributes, almost nonexistent in Zinfandels grown on the east side—in the aroma and flavor.

Excellent examples of earthy west side Lodi Zinfandels include those of m2 Winery, Michael David Winery (despite the fact that this winery blends east and west side Zinfandels in their bottlings), St. Amant Winery, The Lucas Winery, Mikami Vineyards, Van Ruiten Family Winery, Alliance Winery, Oak Ridge Winery, Jessie's Grove Winery, Spenker WineryOak Farm Vineyards, and the Bonotto and TruLux Vineyard bottlings of McCay Cellars.

Other cheeses that make seamless matches for deep, earthy styles of west side Lodi Zinfandel: Queen Bee Porcini, Boschetto al Tartufo, Pecorino Tartufo, Chili Pecorino, and Fiscalini Truffle Cheddar.

Barely Buzzed with generously oaked styles of Lodi Zinfandel

Made by Beehive Cheese Co. in Uintah, Utah, Barely Buzzed is an intoxicatingly original, cheddar style cow’s milk cheese rubbed with espresso coffee and lavender oil, adding eye opening volume to the crystallized butter/butterscotchy, caramelized taste of this intensely aged cheese. 

It is the coffee and caramelized qualities of this aged cheese that make it ideal with Zinfandels aged in barrels long enough to garner discernibly oaky (i.e., smoky/vanillin) qualities, whether sourced from east or west side Lodi vineyards. In fact, oak enriched dimensions have been the stock and trade of Zinfandel specialists such as Michael David Winery, Klinker Brick Winery, Mettler Family Vineyards, Macchia Wines and m2 Wines' Select Block—all the better for cheeses such as Barely Buzzed.

Other deeply flavorful cheeses excellent with generously oaked styles of Lodi Zinfandel: Two Sisters Gouda Rosalina, Beemster Smoked Gouda, Beemster Classic Extra Aged Gouda, Coastal Mature Cheddar, and Fiscalini Bandage Wrapped Cheddar.

Valdeón with Port style or Late Harvest Zinfandel

Even if you’re not partial to blue veined cheese, it’s hard not to love Valdeón from Spain: made from a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk to produce a creamy, lusciously soft and silky style of blue that is extremely fine and subtle in the characteristically earthy/salty/sharp qualities of cheeses aged by Penicillium, the fungus that is used to produce all the great blue cheeses of the world (i.e., Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Cabrales, Cambozola, Stilton, Danish blue, et al.).

Because salty sensations are always balanced by sweetness, all blue cheeses are ideally matched by wines finished with residual sugar. Over the years, a small number of Lodi wineries—such as The Lucas Winery, Van Ruiten Family and Macchia Wines—have produced Zinfandels crafted in this fashion, made from grapes picked late enough in the season to have enough sugars to produce perceptibly sweet wines. In recent years, the Late Harvest Zinfandel by d'Art Wines has been the most consistent in terms of local production.

Although located in Oxnard (Ventura County) rather than Lodi, Herzog Wine Cellars has specialized in lusciously flavorful Late Harvest Lodi Zinfandels because they are a kosher winery (there are many fans of sweet red wine among Herzog's Jewish customer base).

But perhaps the most dynamic match for Valdeón (and virtually all blue cheese for that matter) of all may be Harney Lane Winery's Old Vine Lizzy James Vineyard Port, a fortified sweet red wine finished at a mild 18% ABV which still manages show off the joyously intense and distinctly perfumed varietal quality of east side Zinfandel, crafted as it is from a vineyard originally planted over 120 years ago.

If anything, I would say: Do not miss out on sheer, exhilarating pleasure of sweet style Zinfandels and blue cheese!

Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s He also contributes editorials to The Tasting Panel magazine, crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media, and is the author of the new book “Lodi! A definitive Guide and History of America’s Largest Winegrowing Region.”

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