Tomorrow, we are attending a mixer called The Science of Fine Wines.  This is a seminar/fundraiser for the Discovery Museum Science&Space Center in Sacramento so we're there to help with the science.  Sure, you can tell by the title the science is not the paramount issue, the wine is, but I'm always going to take the opportunity to get a little smarter and if other people listen, that's great too.

Unfortunately, I have discovered that after 2.5 years doing this, my fingers do not work and my thoughts do not coalesce properly in anything other than the Science 2.0 editor (your mileage may vary) so I have to write it here and then I will copy and paste it for the handout tomorrow.  That means you can help me fact check.

My primary interest is why something we all know is the case happens to be the case; that some foods, like cheese, go better with wine.

gouda cheese
Not the cheese we will be eating tomorrow, since Kristina has that, as recounted in The Hunt for Cheese

Everyone knows we have five senses (taste, smell, touch, vision and hearing) that we share with all animals and those help us understand the world around us.   Your sense of taste is, contrary to popular wisdom, partially inherited but obviously factors like culture and exposure make a difference, which is why the phrase "it's an acquired taste" came into being.

Taste is a physiological aspect while flavor is something else entirely and can be influenced by tactile, thermal, painful and kinaesthesic effects.  You know what it means, but you also know it is pretty subjective.   Flavor to you may encompass a much difference range of perceptions than it does to a highly-rated chef, just like Eskimoes have all those words for snow and it encompasses multiple senses so let's stick with taste for now.

While we have four major taste groups sensed by the specialized receptor cells of the human tongue - sweet, sour, salty, and bitter - the Japanese break them into 5 and, because we are here to talk primarily about cheese, the Japanese win because the primary taste involved doesn't fit into any of ours but does in theirs - the one called Umami.  In English, it means 'meaty' and and has a 'savory' sensation to food critics but for us it is the detection of glutamates, like cheese and other protein-heavy foods.  Scientists even know the actual Metabotropic Glutamate Receptor responsible for Umami, called mGluR4(1).

Cheese structure is also an essential quality trait in eating and can be analyzed by physical methods like small amplitude oscillatory shear, thermal analysis and electron microscopy but those aren't going to be as important to us as why cheese tastes good with wine.

Taste buds ( they really do look like plant buds under a microscope) were discovered in the 19th century by German scientists Georg Meissner and Rudolf Wagner.  On the tongue, they exist on the ridged surface (papillae) and microvilli, which are basically tiny extensions, increase the receptor surface of the cells.

For most foods, saliva breaks down food into chemical components that travel through the pores in the papillae to reach the taste buds, and then those process it into one of the four major taste groups we commonly understand: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

'Taste' happens because specific proteins in food bind to receptors on the taste buds which sends messages to the brain's cerebral cortex and we interpret the flavor.

Taste buds are clustered together in certain areas - sweetness are grouped on the tip of the tongue, sour are on the sides, salty is in the front and bitter in the back.   If some bitter foods make you gag, it's because that's a natural defense mechanism against poisoning.  Thanks, evolution!   And ancient politics!

There's obviously a lot more to taste than taste buds but what we know is fascinating.   Taste buds are grouped together but each taste bud actually has receptors for sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.  That means taste buds area complex 'flavor spectrum' much like vision can be grouped into the four major colors of red, orange, yellow, and green but actually are wonderfully complex.

We regenerate new taste buds every 3-10 days (it takes longer as we age) to replace the ones damaged by hot or cold foods.  Taste buds also lose some 'fine tuning' as we age so older people may need more of a substance to get the same sensations of sweetness or spiciness that a kid has with less.

Some people are also genetically 'programmed' to have more taste buds and the number of taste buds differs among animal species. Cows have 25,000 taste buds and rabbits 17,000 but adult humans only around 10,000 - this is why rabbits can find a lot more originality in a carrot than I can.

Even among humans, though, results are all over the map.    Researchers have had test subjects with everywhere from 11 to 1,100 taste buds per square inch.   Women, unsurprisingly because they rule,  also tend to have more taste buds than men.

People with fewer taste buds like cheese more often than people with exceptional  taste buds because people with exceptional taste say they get a more bitter flavor, perhaps due to the calcium and milk protein/casein (predominant phosphoprotein αS1, αS2, β, κ) that is nearly 80% of the proteins in cow cheese.

I'm not discounting the importance of saliva, of course.  In people, and probably all animals,  the amount of naturally occurring salt in saliva means that those with less can better taste the saltiness of certain foods.  Smell and texture are also important.  Heck, smell is so important that researchers argue whether inability to taste is a mouth or nose issue.  Two to four million people in the United States have some sort of taste or smell disorder.

Nor are tastes solely biology, I just listed that first because most people assume there is no biological component at all. Culture and familiarity matter.   I rarely ate sushi while living in Pennsylvania but after a decade spent in California I could write a whole book on how great it is.

With the science out of the way, let's get down to what got us all through college - memorizing some rules.   So basically I have made a 'Cheese And Wine Combinations For Dummies List'.

Click on it and you will go to the real PDF in case you are doing something similar and want an easy handout.  It will print much better than it looks here, I promise.

scientific blogging science of wine and cheese flyer

Some Quick Rules On Wine And Cheese

- Stronger cheeses go better with stronger wines

- Mature cheeses do better with mature wines

- Cheese and wine made in one region tend to work well together

- White wines are combined with cheese better than red wines

- Sweet cheeses and fresher wines will seem more acidic together

- Red wines are better with soft cheeses

- Taste all cheese at room temperature except for fresh cheeses, which should be cold. 

- With cheese, go from mild to sharp, soft to firm

Handy Wine and Cheese Combinations

- Gouda and Cheddar go with Merlot, Cabernet and Pinot Noir

- Brie goes with everything. Seriously, you can’t go wrong.

- Parmesan goes with fruity red wine like Beaujolais and quieter whites like Chablis 

- Strong cheeses like Muenster need stronger red wines like Cote Rotie or whites like Alsace Gewurtzraminer

- Blue cheeses like Roquefort and Gorgonzola go well with sweet wines like Sauternes and Porto Vintage

- Light fruit red wines to gentle fresh goat cheeses, and moist wines are combined with dry cheeses

- Processed cheeses: you’re kidding, right?

About the Cheese served at the mixer tomorrow:

The cheese was donated/discounted by the Pedrozo Dairy&Cheese Co. of Orland, California (happy cows!) specifically for this hands-on lab about wine and cheese combinations.

It is a traditional farmhouse cheese (raw milk, grass-based dairy farm) made in the traditional Gouda style — washed curd, raw milk, and aged a minimum of 60 days.  It all sounds very touchy-feely to me but I am a cheese guy so I will give it a fair chance.


(1) Nelson G, Chandrashekar J, Hoon MA, et al (2002). "An amino-acid taste receptor". Nature 416 (6877): 199–202. DOI:10.1038/nature726.

(2) Professional Friends Of Wine - A Sensory User's Manual