Wine and cheese have shared a harmonious relationship for thousands of years, almost since the very invention of wine. They are soul mates, meant to be…you won’t find a 51% divorce rate here! Although wine and cheese understand how exactly they belong together, for us on the outside, looking in, the question of how to choose a certain cheese to pair with a certain wine can often make us dizzy.
As with food and wine pairing in general, there are rules, but rules are meant to be broken…everything has an exception. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon traditionally pairs with Sharp Cheddar. However, this doesn’t mean that all Napa Valley Cabs or French Bordeaux taste the same from every producer and every vintage. At the same time, Brie will have many different possible tastes, depending on that particular Brie’s origins. Wine and cheese are living, changing products, which is why people all over the world are fascinated by these delicious partners.
But despite my “no rules” policy, there are general guidelines to use when you go shopping:
- White wines generally pair well with soft cheeses and stronger flavors
- Red wines pair best with hard cheeses and milder flavors
- Dessert wines match best with blue cheeses and pungent flavors
- Using these guidelines will help you get past the intimidation you might feel from wine and cheese pairing. You’ll also feel freer to experiment with different wines and cheeses. Both the wine and cheese together are supposed change each other’s tastes, thereby heightening both experiences. I recommend tasting the wine before the cheese, and then tasting them together so you can clearly notice the differences in both when they are paired.
To be even more specific:
- Sauvignon Blanc & Chenin Blanc: Try goat cheese (Chevre). The high acidity and mineral undertones of these wines from Loire Valley (and beyond) love the richness and earthiness of chevre.
- Chardonnay: Taste this with Brie, Camembert, Gouda, or Provolone. The full-bodied, rich Chardonnays work well with washed rind cow’s milk cheeses as well as many cow’s milk blue cheeses. The apple, pear, and citrus flavors of this grape usually meld with the acids found in goat’s milk cheeses as well.
- Champagne: In my opinion, champagne can pair with anything and everything! Its high acidity cuts through rich and creamy cheeses such as triple-cream Brie but also pairs perfectly with Edam and Gruyere.
- Pinot Noir: If you have a “stinky” wine then pair it with a stinky cheese! Pinot Noir from a region such as Burgundy is heavenly with Epoisses (pronounced ay-PWAHSS). Epoisses has a pungent flavor and washed rind, and comes as spoonable, silky paste. Spread onto a French baguette and enjoy!
- Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon: These wines tend to favor cow’s milk cheeses. The high acids in goat cheese tend to clash with the tannins in these wines, making for an unmemorable experience. Try hard, aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Stilton, aged Gouda, Parmesan, or some milder blue cheeses.
- Port: Port with Stilton is one of my all-time favorite combinations. This sweet wine seems to cut through the creaminess and saltiness of the cheese and classifies this pairing as a rule-breaker in every sense of the word. For dessert wines, the more pungent cheese flavors pair best.
Cheese and wine should act as a symphony playing in unison—delicate cheeses go with lighter wines, strong cheeses with more powerful wines. Experimentation is key. Try multiple cheeses with multiple wines and see what you like best. Pastoral, in Chicago, is a wine and cheese shop with a good handle on pairings—they really understand both wine and cheese. They have a small but well-thought-out selection of wines and amazing off-the-beaten-path cheeses to choose from. Use the guidelines I mentioned above, and let them know which wines you are pairing—they can help make the best choices for you!
Wine writer Maggie Bernat Smith contributes to the Strongbox blog each Friday.