Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wine and food for love

Neufchâtel AOC – Fromage de Normandie
Arguably, Neufchâtel is the oldest cheese in Normandy, 1035 or 1037 AD according to some, but officially first documented in 1543/4 in the archives of Rouen’s Abbey of Saint-Armand.
The appellation contrôlée dates from 1977. Controls on the production and maturing of these cheeses are draconian. They may be made from either raw or pasteurised milk – the latter is more widely used during the winter. The legislation allows six shapes, two of which are heart-shaped. More than half the cheeses sold come in the smaller heart shape, weighing 200g.
Why heart-shaped? Again, legend mingles with fact. Legend holds that the young local ladies, to show their great admiration for the English soldiers stationed in Normandy in the Middle Ages, made and sold or gave them heart-shaped cheeses. The far less interesting fact is the cheese producers had a number of different cheese moulds including the heart shape. But, why spoil the romance?
The rind is ivory white, the heart also white, soft and smooth, with a pale yellow band towards the rind. Neufchâtel has aromas of mushroom and is slightly acidic but mild in flavour. For a good partner, try a crusty baguette and a glass of Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. A Sainte-Croix-du-Mont or other Bordeaux demi-sec also makes a good match.
Neufchâtel is made by all scales of production, from farmhouse to factory, and is on sale almost everywhere in France. The 200g heart costs between €5 and €8.

Romantic vintages
Although the softer, merlot-based Bordeaux wines are always regarded as the ideal marriage for Neufchâtel, many prefer a sweeter, but not too full, white wine – more often recommended with ewe’s milk cheeses. My old friend Pierre Montagnac, a Bordeaux wine merchant, was a great help as we went in search of wine links to the lovers’ patron saint. Here are just two for your delectation.

Château Leydet-Valentin – AC Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
The château was originally named Clos Valentin by the Nadeau family but after it was sold to cousin Bernard Leydet, it was changed first to Leydet-Figeac and then in 1983 to its present name. A second label wine Château Saint-Valentin was introduced in 1992. The vineyard covers almost nine hectares.
With traditional British love of a pun, Bernard’s surname can easily be mispronounced as ‘Lady’, making the link with February 14 even closer.
Château Leydet-Valentin is 60% merlot, 30% bouchet (the Libournais name for the cabernet franc) and 10% cabernet sauvignon. Quality is foremost in the making of any vintage here. The grapes are reduced in a severe ‘green harvest’ in July, manually picked at vintage time, and the bunches further selected at a sorting table. Fermentation on the skins usually lasts three to five weeks. After pressing, the wine is matured for 11 to 14 months in a combination of old and new oak.
This yields a wine to stir any heart: a ruby red robe, soft, black berry aromas which follow through to the palate to mingle with slightly oaky tannins in a long-lasting finish.

Château Valentin 2006 – AC Sainte-Croix-du-Mont
The family of Henri Chouvac has farmed in the area of Sainte- Croix-du-Mont for five generations. The current Henri took over from his father in 2000, after working with him for 14 years. There are now 25 hectares under vine under seven different appellations.
Château Valentin is a sweet white wine which has twice taken the Magnum d’Or prize at the Concours de Bordeaux – Vins d’Aquitaine.
The best sweet wines are made when the ‘noble’ form of the botrytis cinerea fungus has attacked the grapes. Thinskinned grapes like the sémillon are most susceptible, but the climate and weather must also be right. Not all grapes will be infected at the same time so harvesting involves a number of visits (tries) to the vineyards, and expert pickers. Henri Chouvac insists on a strict sorting procedure when the grapes arrive at the winery. With a high sugar content caused by the shrivelling of the grapes, fermentation is difficult and timeand labour-intensive.
The wine produced is pale to mid-gold in colour, with aromas of honey and tropical and dried fruit. It is lusciously sweet on the palate, with a long aftertaste. In Aquitaine, it is the traditional accompaniment to foie gras, but it also pairs well with soft, rich and blue cheeses.

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