6 Major Musts for Masterful Wine and Cheese Pairings
By Pierre Roustan
We honestly long for the manual that can guide us through the array and always-changing tapestry of wine and cheese pairings given the complexity of the foods and how it plays with our palates. There’s no such manual, though. And that’s because there’s a great deal of invention involved when it comes to wine pairings with cheese power plays. Not many know that there are literally dozens of cheese varieties out there! And the wine listing is just as impressive.
So then how do we make the right choice when pairing a wine with a cheese? We simply have to follow these basic principles (and, really, that’s all you’ll need, because the bonus of figuring all of this out is that creativity and invention are your fun takeaways!).
Number 1: Age and Intensity Matter
Not only are there a multitude of cheese and wine varieties, there are also a multitude of intensities. You’ve got strong sharp cheddar, for instance; and then you have the gooey, sweet Brie of cheese-dom, and everything in between. Wine can go from fresh, crisp and sweet (young wines) to savory and bold (older wines in the barrel).
So here’s your first major must: generally speaking, you want to pair intensities. A strong cheese – either sweet or savory – will often pair with a strong wine. Gruyere and Emmental will boldly emanate the earthy nuts, and blue cheeses develop that strong pungency we love, pairing well with high acidic wines aging victoriously in the barrels with their oak, toast, mineral and umami notes, rounding out the fruity scent and taste accompanied with the grapes. Softer, sweeter wines, of course, will opt for more of the young cheeses with no mold, no hard edges to them.
Know this, though: it’s not a firm rule, per se, and here’s why:
Number 2: Salty Generally Adores Sweet and Vice Versa
Ah, yes: complexity. Even complicated. Wine and cheese pairings can be as such, but this must to muster in determining the best wine and cheese pairings will keep the intensity rule in check, because in general you follow this mantra:
Contrast is king. That means you generally want the sweeter wines to pair with the saltier cheeses. You’ll have some really warm red wines out there that’ll taste magnificent with the saltiest of cheeses, like cheddar, Grana, blue cheese, Gouda or even feta. Likewise, sweet cheeses will complement the driest and acidic of wines in the gamut.
Think of trail mix, for example. What makes it so good is the balance of salt and sweet. The same applies to wine and cheese. However….
Number 3: Be Careful With Those Dry Wines Out There
We’re getting into a bit of the science here with something called tannin¸ a common characteristic among wines giving certain brands that dry taste some people love. Maybe you don’t, and that’s okay; however, a dry wine will go extremely well with all sorts of rich and aged cheeses specifically due to the protein and fat binding the tannins will often do.
In essence, it allows you to handle the richest of cheeses without overdosing on sweetness! However…. Know your wines. A tannic aged wine won’t actually go well with a young and sweet cheese out there given the lack of fat, leaving you with that chalky and metallic sensation on your tongue. So steer clear of that combo.
When in doubt, look at the tannic content in the wine. Taste to see if it’s dry. If so, go with a high age for your cheese. If it’s low, young is where you’ll go. You have other helpful culinary guides, though:
Number 4: When in Doubt, Get Fruity and Nutty
Maybe you don’t want to have to look at labels a lot on those wine bottles, and that’s okay – because did you know that certain cheeses go well with certain fruits and nuts? This also gives you a framework for how wine will work with cheese. Fruits and nuts are proportional to cheese in terms of sweetness and saltiness.
So if you’re still at a loss for where to start, look at your fruits. Look at the nuts. What nuts go well with which cheeses? Often sweet dried fruits, embodying the boldness of the drying process, will complement quite well with Stilton, a very salty cheese; whereas raspberries and pineapple will calm down the richness of Brie.
Let those fruits and nuts be your guide, as well as geography (?). We’ll explain that next:
Number 5: If They Grow in the Same Area, Eat Them on the Same Plate
This could make it even easier. Location plays a role. If you have a French goat cheese from Loire, chances are pretty good that the goat cheese will play well with Loire Sancerre (they do go well, just so you know). They come from the same region!
The same goes for something like a red Burgundy and Epoisses. Both are from, well, Burgundy. Makes sense. Even the hard Spanish sheep’s milk Manchego pairs quite well with Spain’s Sherry and Monastrell. But always keep in mind: you have certain tastes, and here’s why this rule is important:
Number 6: What Kind of Cheese You Like Will Make the Difference
Always know that the range of cheeses accounts for a wide variety of consistencies. Do you like the rich, spreadable cheeses? Good for you. What about the harder, more aged, and pungent cheeses? Whatever floats your boat.
Some cheeses are way too strong – others are just not strong enough. It all depends on what you like. If you want the fresh and soft cheeses out there like Ricotta, Mozzarella, Feta, Brie and Camembert, go with some crisp whites, dry roses and sparkling wines like Riesling, Champagne, Chablis, and Pinot Gris.
Now if you’re more of the firmer texture and more bodied flavor cheese like Havarti, Gruyere, and Monterey Jack, kick it up a notch with the wine and find the best Chardonnay, white Burgundy, and Merlot. Something with a bit more kick to it.
The bolder choices in cheese like Epoisses, Taleggio and Morbier require the lighter-bodied wines, like Sauternes and Pinot Noir with their demure aromatics. You could go even bolder with blue cheeses like Stilton and Gorgonzola, but you’ll have to go bold with the sweetness in wine with a yummy Port or Sherry. Remember: contrast is king.
And, of course, those harder cheeses like the aged cheddar, Asiago and Parmesan must have a wine with enough tannin in it to absorb all of that fat and protein. Bordeaux, Cabernet or Zinfandels will often pair quite well to those crumbly savory cheeses.
Ultimately, though, these six steps do well to guide you. But there’s only one ultimate guide to wine and cheese pairings:
Experiment: Go Contrast or Complement!
That’s you. You are the ultimate measure. The amazing thing about cheese and wine is that although contrast is king, complement is “queen” in this kingdom; and they can go hand in hand. It all depends on your palate. This, of course, applies to texture, but in general, if there’s a nice calm sweetness to the cheese, who’s to say that it won’t go well with a nice, warm, fruity red wine?
It all depends on what your mouth’s calling for.
Take these six musts as a master and then start experimenting. Because even though it’s been well established that this or that wine goes well with this or that cheese, it doesn’t mean that it’ll necessarily go well with you. Have fun tasting. Why do you think wineries have wine tastings? That’s part of the joy in pairing the best of wines with the most charming of cheeses.
Enjoy. And don’t forget the nuts and fruits.