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Data Science Meets the Holiday Party

Unsure of how to pair wine with cheese? A U of T scientist offers a unique solution

December 15, 2016

Wineandcheesemap.com shows you which wines and cheeses go best together

Wineandcheesemap.com shows you which wines and cheeses go best together

In a season of drop-ins and seasonal gatherings, many people who are neither oenophiles nor foodies fret over how to pair the right wine with the right cheese. The LCBO’s glossy magazine offers tips, as do the wine columnists. But for those who haven’t done their homework before heading to the market, there’s always guesswork – or the old hedge of serving a hard cheese, a soft cheese and something in between.

As daily life challenges go, this particular dilemma doesn’t sound like one a professor of molecular genetics would concern himself with. But Gary Bader, a data scientist at U of T’s Donnelly Centre, has come to the rescue, applying a sophisticated software tool used in gene mapping to offer up quick and taste-tested combinations through a website – wineandcheeesemap.com – that he built with his wife, SickKids pediatrician Shawna Silver.

Gary Bader

Gary Bader

Bader and Silver, both cheese enthusiasts, initially decided to solve the pairing problem by doing what scholars do: they went to the library and borrowed several volumes about wine and cheese. After spending a few weeks poring over the pages, Bader recalls, they realized there are much better ways to compile and present the information about what tastes good with what.

In his molecular genetics work, Bader created software called Cytoscape, which generates graphical representations to show which genes are common to different diseases or genetic traits. “It represents them as a network that can be visualized [as a] map that’s easy to use and explore,” he says.

With the website, which is formatted like an app for smart phones, consumers can select a particular cheese or wine, and the algorithm will sift through the pairing recommendations derived from the books that Bader and Silver researched. “There are 900 wine and cheese pairings in the app,” he says. But, Bader adds, “Many are with wines and cheeses that are hard to find.” (The project is not a commercial venture.)

Gruyere pairs well with reds such as syrah and California Zinfandel, as well with California sauvignon blanc

Gruyere pairs well with reds such as syrah and California Zinfandel, as well with California sauvignon blanc

While he considers himself knowledgeable, Bader discovered a few pairings he hadn’t previously known about: Keen’s, a sharp English cheddar, goes well with Bordeaux reds and with syrahs. California zinfandels are delicious with Zamorano, a hard Spanish cheese made from sheep’s milk. And Beaufort, a French gruyere, matches up elegantly with chardonnay. “We’ve tried a number of them,” Bader says. The recommendation system isn’t foolproof, though, because different vintages of the same wine may not pair well with the same cheese. A 2014 pinot grigio may go well with a Camembert, for example, but a 2015 bottle might not.

The wineandcheesemap.com algorithms are based on the information Bader and Silver teased out of the books they found in the library. The combinations don’t draw on the more expressly scientific question of the chemistry that might explain why one taste goes well with another. “A lot of people are interested in the relationship between biology, wines, and cheese,” says Bader, noting the surge of science around yeasts and gut biomes. “I’ve never seen anyone try to figure out if they can predict which tastes go well together.”


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