The complexities of cheese and wine pairing
No foodie topic is more open to debate, disagreement, and subjectivity than cheese and wine pairing. Local cuisine, different cultures, and personal preferences make what seem perfectly acceptable wine and food combinations to some, appear utterly awful to others. Our own feelings on this subject are almost schizophrenic; personal experience tells us that it is, above all, a complex and very subjective affair. Yet it is also a gastronomic endeavor littered with well-worn myths – the notion that fine red wine and cheese are a marriage made in heaven is not born out by experience. Or common sense.
Indeed, fine red wines such as Pauillac and Chambertin are typically slaughtered by strong, pungent cheeses, which simply overwhelm, rather than complement the wines paired alongside them. It is far preferable to serve sharp or sweet white wines in this case, particularly whites with a racy acidity.
However, it is ultimately, of course, a question of personal taste. That being said, there are some guiding principles that can really enhance your overall cheese and wine experience. For example, hard cheeses tend to pair better with tannic wines, while the creamier the cheese the more acidity is needed in the wine. The main exception constitutes another useful tip for cheese and wine pairing: wines and cheeses of a region, such as Piedmont, usually work well together. Cheese has traditionally been classified by its texture and the nature of its rind, so the appearance of cheese provides a useful guide to the type of wine to match it. We have compiled a list of the most common groups of cheeses, and some wines that tend to work well with Cheddar, Mozzarella, Parmesan, Epoisses and Manchego, in addition to many others. Above all else, we encourage you to experiment and have fun! This is a useful guide (we hope), but it isn’t the last word.
Fresh cheeses aren’t going to win any awards for color diversity; the majority of fresh cheeses are pale-colored, owing to the young age of the milk used. Yet they are among the most popular in the world, due to their soft texture and creamy flavors. The most famous are Mozzarella, Feta from Greece and Ricotta. They are simply wonderful additions to salads and bread dishes from Provence, Greece, and Tuscany. We have found that fresh cheeses suit light and crisp white wines – oaked wines tend to overwhelm the simple, delightful flavors. So try a young Bordeaux Blanc, such as Graves, or a very young, fresh and light red Bordeaux or Beaujolais. Rose from Provence is another surefire hit. The secret is to ensure that nothing clashes, preserving the flavor and freshness of both the cheese and the wine.
Natural Rind Cheeses
Natural rind cheeses are extremely diverse – they come in many shapes and sizes. They include Tomme de Savoie, Cantal, and Tumalo Tomme. They are made with the least amount of human intervention, aged in temperature and humidity controlled rooms, oxygen dries out the outside of the cheese over time. A crust is developed (outer layer of their skin) as the cheese matures. Because of the interaction with oxygen over time, the rinds will develop unique flavors and textures. Natural rind cheeses made with goat’s or sheep’s milk tend to adore Sauvignon Blanc, a pungent and medium-weight wine that finds its apogee in Sancerre. They also work well with wines from Soave and unoaked Chardonnay – Chablis would be ideal. The key is to pair natural rind cheeses with fresh and fruity whites, rather than oaky or structured examples – at least in our experience. Many attempts to pair natural rind cheeses with red wines have taught us that white wines are a more natural and complementary partner.
Soft White Cheeses
Again, another very diverse and special category. Soft white cheeses include bloomy rind soft cheeses, which involve more ‘intervention’ than natural rind equivalents. Cheesemakers spray a solution containing edible mold spores, which tend to form a rind due to the humidity in the room where the cheese is being aged. Washed-rind cheeses are extremely pungent and powerful in flavor: cheesemakers coat the cheese in a brine or alcohol solution, which creates a damp environment where edible molds can grow and flourish into a sticky, orange-red rind. Famous examples of both bloomy rind and washed-rind cheeses include Brie, Camembert, Bougon (goat’s milk ‘Camembert’), Epoisses, Maroilles, and Munster. The former category is best paired with fuller whites; dry white Burgundy works very well with Camembert. However, reds also have an important role to play – Brie and powerful St-Emilion (on the younger side), Australian Shiraz and mature Grenache all work very well.
However, washed-rind pungent cheeses need to be paired with wine with extreme caution. Burgundians often suggest Epoisses with mature Pinot Noir, but we prefer younger, fruit-driven wines from Beaujolais. Gamay creates a nice marriage between fruit and acidity when paired with pungent soft cheeses. Powerful whites also acquit themselves nicely – try Alsatian Gewurztraminer or Muscat with Brie.
Semi-soft cheeses are the favorite of connoisseurs worldwide. They combine the best elements of soft and hard cheeses, with the added bonus of a grey-pink, hard rind. Livarot, Pont l’Eveque, Tomme de Savoie, and St-Nectaire are some of the most revered cheeses in Michelin restaurants across the globe. They tend to have stronger flavors, which require equally as robust wine choices. Yet there is real flexibility when it comes to pairing semi-soft cheeses with white wines – remember that some of these cheeses are mightily strong, and a dreadful pairing with fine, mature reds. Nevertheless, your options in the white wine department are considerable. Powerful Graves, Australian Chardonnay, Alsatian Pinot Gris and barrel-fermented white Rioja adore pungent, semi-soft cheeses.
In addition, if you fancy broadening your horizons, consider pairing Cava or dry oloroso sherry with these varieties of cheese. The acidity that is inherent to Cava cuts across the richness very nicely, where oloroso sherry’s oxidative, gamey notes are the perfect foil to the ‘smelly’ excesses of Pont l’Eveque. Trust us, it really works.
A much-loved category of cheeses, which encompasses many regions, nations and production styles. Hard cheeses, waxed or oiled and often showing marks from a cheesecloth are a gift to tannic wines. Yet there is a powerful caveat; strong cheeses destroy Bordeaux and require less refined wines. But there is no doubt that Gouda, Gruyere, Manchego, and Cheddar complement St-Emilion, Medoc and Pomerol wines in a way that would be unthinkable with soft or blue cheeses. They represent perhaps the pinnacle of cheese and wine pairing. Our personal favorite would be Parmesan and Barolo – it sounds almost a waste of a good Barolo, but the racy acidity and grippy tannin inherent to younger Barolo absolutely adores the saltiness and grainy texture of a mature Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. Great Shiraz wines such as Hermitage or Australia’s Grange also work wonders – again the match of tannin and saltiness is key. Sugary, granular and hardly ever recognized, Mimolette and Beaufort are the ideal accompaniments to mature claret. If, however, your hard cheese is particularly pungent or powerful then consider younger, less complex examples from those appellations. As ever, bringing together local cheeses and local wines is often – but not always – a recipe for success.
The connoisseur’s favorite, blue cheeses are made in a way that sounds very unappealing to many. Essentially, the cheese benefits from the addition of cultures of mold added, the result being a veined cheese with distinctly blue mold running through the final product. But trust us, the final cheese is delicious – Roquefort is noted for its distinctly sharp, salty taste and pungent aroma. Stilton is another classic blue cheese, served at Christmas with the same inevitability as mince pies and Christmas pudding.
But what to pair with these distinctly flavored cheeses? Tradition and convention play a large role here: Roquefort is widely credited with being the ideal foil for Sauternes, a sweet wine style from Bordeaux. And yes, it does really work! It is the sweetness of Sauternes, especially older examples, which really complements the saltiness. Another classic pairing is Stilton and port. We tend to favor older tawnies in this regard, like Stilton, we find, prefer more oxidative and less fruit-driven port wine styles.
However, there are options further afield, if you’re a stickler for experimentation. Spain and Portugal offer rich rewards; powerfully flavored old oloroso, amontillado, Madeira and other fortified wines work very well with blue cheeses. Sommeliers have even been known to pair sweet Riesling or Tokaj for example. But, as ever, the choice is ultimately yours.