Cheese, Glorious Cheese!

By Sunny Brown on May 18, 2005

Category: Food and Wine Pairing

What is better to serve with wine than cheese? For centuries these two mainstays of many a diet have gone hand in hand. Wine has been around forever, so has cheese. Even wine and cheese pairing has been around since Pliny was a pup, but which wine with which cheese? Now that can be a complicated question. It seems there are as many answers as the different types of cheeses. There are, however, a few simple guidelines that can take some of the labor out of adding lactose to your lounging.

Let’s start with the easy ones. Perhaps the best method to pair wines with cheeses is to go by the same simple standard that applies to all regional cuisine and wine pairing: Location, location, location. The connection between the cuisine of a region and the wine therein is a strong one forged over many centuries. Often the wine from a particular area reflects the style, weight, flavors and aromas of the local diet, and vice versa. There are hundreds of classical pairings that have evolved into a symbiotic relationship between food and wine. Chianti with pasta Bolognese. Truffled risotto with Barolo. The famous Coq au Vin of Burgundy with the famous Pinot Noirs of Burgundy. The list goes on and on. Cheese is no different.

The artisan cheeses of Europe often have a strong resemblance to the local land and people. Pecorino Romano from the plains of Tuscany is dry and fragrant, just like the hills in which it is made. Appenzeller from Switzerland tastes as hardy as the high Alpine plains on which it is produced. The goat cheeses of Rioja are washed with the wines that flow there, thus creating a natural combination of fruitiness and cream. It may not be as hard as you might think to find a cheese from the exact same region as the wine you are serving. A good cheese shop will often have hundreds of selections, many from the same “old world” regions of Western Europe as the wine that you are about to enjoy. Don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation, it is the shopkeeper’s job to know her/his wares.

The other school of thought when matching the velvety (not Velveeta!) goodness of an artisan delight and a delicious bottle of wine is to weigh the style of the cheese. Fresh and creamy cheeses need the crisp acidity of white wines to bring out their full range of flavors. These cheeses will often be overshadowed by a heavy red with lots of fiery tannins. Conversely, the harder a cheese is the better it will react to a wine full of tannins. In fact, the proteins in an aged cheese will temper the tannins in a full red wine allowing more of the fruit and complexity of the wine to pair with the flavors and aromas of the cheese.

Below is a rough guide of the most common cheese and wine pairings.

Fresh Cheeses (Mozzarella, Montrachet and Feta)

All excellent choices for white wines, but Mozzarella also matches nicely with light and fruity reds such as Beaujolais. Fresh goat cheese such as Montrachet is wonderful with the crisp and vibrant Sancerres of the Loire Valley. Feta may be one of the most versatile of cheeses, delicious on salads, in recipes and as a salty accompaniment to hardy red wines. But a young and fresh Feta is also a sponge for whatever flavors you desire. Serving a Pinot Noir? Add some cherries or a blackberry jam to the feta, or add some walnuts and an orange clover honey for an easy dessert idea. The possibilities are endless.

Soft Ripening Cheeses (Brie, Camembert and Bougon)

These cheeses can swing from lighter whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris for the Brie through to fresh and fruity reds from the Rhône Valley such as Côtes du Rhône for the Camembert. Try a Merlot from the Right Bank of Bordeaux for Bougon, a Camembert made with goat’s milk.

Washed Rind Cheeses (Robiola, Taleggio and Munster)

Washed rind cheeses develop a sticky outer rind due to bacteria that develops on the outside of the cheese. This is a good thing! The bacteria protects the cheese as it matures and gains complexity. Local red wines and strong whites always work best. Try a Gewürtztraminer with the Munster or a Barbaresco with the Taleggio.

Semi-Aged Cheeses (Mt. Tam, Drunken Goat and Asiago)

The Mt. Tam, a triple-cream cow’s milk cheese from the U.S., makes a tasty partner for a Provençal Rosé. The fresh strawberries and dry finish integrate nicely with the lush texture of the cheese. Rioja is the only wine for Drunken Goat. Neighbors in Spain and neighbors on the table. Similarly Asiago and Chianti is another example of regional harmony.

Hard or Aged Cheeses (Parmesan, Gouda, Cheddar and Manchego)

Quintessential red wine cheeses. Parmesan has been made in the same way for over 400 years, almost as long as the wines from Montalcino and Chianti. Aged Gouda can be equally delicious with Port or Zinfandel, which pairs just as well with a fine English Cheddar. The sheep of La Mancha have produced a cheese that is the perfect partner for earthy reds such as Cabernet and Bordeaux-style blends.

Blue Cheeses (Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgonzola)

One of the most classic of pairings is that of English Stilton and Port wine, both vintage and tawny. Roquefort is friendly with Port too, but likes big reds such as Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon better. Gorgonzola matches well with wines from northern Italy, both red and white.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of fine pairings between wine and cheese. But don’t be afraid to experiment. There are plenty of exotic and interesting cheeses out there just waiting for a glass of wine and a palette to play with. Cheeses such as Cabecou Feuille, a French goat cheese that is soaked in plum brandy, sprinkled with black pepper and then wrapped in chestnut leaves. Or the equally exotic Azeitao, a Portuguese variety that is made in clay pots next to an open fire and mixed with wild purple thistle flowers. As the global community becomes more familiar with one another regional specialties such as these will become more readily available.

Cheese comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be hard, soft, melted, poached or cured. The very nature of cheese makes it a perfect partner with the myriad of different styles of wine. While some versions may work better than others, each is at the very least unique. As you try several different wine and cheese combinations you may find that instead of the marriage of flavors or the balance of aromas, it is the experience that works best.