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Cheese & Wine Pairing: A Zinful Love

Hobo Zinfandel I'm not always big Zinfandel fan.

With its ooey-gooey fruit and sweet vanilla flavors, generally low acidity and soft finish, most Zins remind me more of a snickerdoodle topped with my grandmother's sugary freezer jam than a well-structured wine. I have nothing against cookies, mind you, but I like my wine to have more of a kick. As a registered wine snob, having a wine with that much sweet pleasure without bracing acidity or tannins to back it the hedonistic fruit makes me feel nervous. Suspicious even. Like I'm not being punished enough.

So when I find Zins who walk the walk such as the above featured Hobo or the Green and Red to its right, that have a little acidity and maybe even a splash of tannins to make it a well-rounded individual, I'm a happy girl. Why don't I just drink something else, you ask?

Because Zinfandel is a cheese miracle worker. Zin does to big cheeses what high heels do for miniskirts. It gives them a happy little boost.

A little history

Zinfandel started out in Croatia as the grape Crljenak Kastelanski. In the 18th century, monks took it with them across the Adriatic to Pulgia. In Italy, it was re-baptized as Primitivo. It eventually made it to Boston, then later, California, where it became the state grape. It became popular in the 1960's with the success of then-small production (now pretty big) wineries Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosebloom.

When it first started out, Zin was a more moderate wine. It has grown bigger and bolder in the U.S. as winemakers have catered to American wine tastes that run sweeter and juicier than the Euros. It is what it is.

Luckily for us, big cheeses like big wines. Cheddars, Goudas, bold goats and aged sheep's milks all love a gooey Zin. Even if I don't always like a big Zin separately, I can't help but like it with a slice of Fiore Sardo. One must cave in.

I co-taught a "Zinfully Good: Big Wine, Big Cheese" class at the Cheese School of San Francisco with Daphne Zepos in January. Besides reconfirming what an awesome teacher she was, the class also redemonstrated the power of the pairing.

For this wine and cheese pairing blog series, I wanted to share my favorites from the class with you and urge you to use than as a jumping off point for exploring your fave cheeses and Zins.

Hoja Santa- that little goat cheese wrapped in an hoja santa leaf from Paula Lambert with fennel, mint and lemon flavors loved a rich, oaky Zin. Surprised the hell out of me. An 08 Gamaba Zin was the winner with this, and a low oak and high acidity Primitivo fell short. I would have thought a lighter cheese would like a lighter wine, but the flavors imparted from the leaf boosted what the little cheese could handle.

Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve- the high-alcohol, rich and fierce 06 Rosenblum "St. Peter's Church" was great with this American Alpine style. I thought it might nix the subtlies of the cheese, but because the wine was older, its fruit and ba-da-boom was a little toned down. Repeat- just a bit. The Zin just ended up bringing out the fruity flavors in the cheese even more. Score.

Saenkanter Gouda- also liked the bigger, sweeter Zins mentioned above. Sweet and sweet and plush and plush.

Montgomery's Cheddar and the Rosenbloom was the clear winner. Monty's earthy flavors and the lightly aged yet jammy Zin snuggled up like two pigs in a blanket. I considered leaving the room to give them privacy, but there was much work to be done.

What are your favorite cheeses to have with Zins?