The Marrying Kind: Here's How to Make Cheese and Wine Happy Together
If I listened to all the advice swirling around about cheese and wine pairing, I’d simply give up and grab a beer. Beer, in fact, is generally more forgiving with cheese. But as with anything in life, the greater the risk, the greater is the potential for reward. The opposite is true as well: When a wine and cheese clash, they tend to do so dramatically. And I’ll be honest with you: Even though I’ve devoted my professional life to the study of wine and how to make the most of it, when it comes to drinking it with cheese, I regularly hit some off-notes.
In part this is because, like wine, cheese is a living, breathing thing, and it changes according to vintage, age, and such unquan- tifiables as barometric pressure and mood. The pairing you once loved may taste terrible another day for a host of reasons, none of them having to do with poor judgment. Happily, we’re talking about wine and cheese here, not brain surgery. And there are two easy ways to up your batting average: Always have extra wine on hand, and commit a few basics to memory. Here’s a general guide to get you started on the path toward wine and cheese bliss—at least 90 percent of the time.
1. Weigh the Options
In any pairing, one element shouldn't drown out the other. A monster cabernet, for instance, is going to obliterate a diminutive disk of fresh goat cheese. Better to pull out a chunk of cheddar or dense, dry aged Monterey Jack for the red and a light, bright sauvignon blanc for the goaty crottin.
It can be hard to tell what a wallop a cheese may pack, but texture can offer an important clue. The silken curds of a ricotta, for instance, are more likely to find a match in a light, gauzy Riesling than a crumbly hunk of milk fat would; a meaty, dense clothbound cheddar, on the other hand, will find its match in a meaty, dense Syrah.
2. Acid is Good
Acidity is cheese’s best friend: It’s the element that's going to cleanse your palate between bites, readying it for more. It's also the one that's going to pick up on the acidity inherent in cheese.
In general the lighter the wine, the higher the impression of acidity (think of the difference between a light, unoaked sauvignon blanc and a rich, oaked sauvignon blanc: They may both have the same amount of acidity per liter, but the unoaked wine has less to get in the way of the perception of acidity).
The decision you need to make is whether you want to emphasize the acidity or counter it. A bright, zingy sauvignon blanc, for instance, will be bolstered by a fresh, tangy goat cheese or a chunk of feta—also quite high in acidity. Light and bright tasting, it’s the sort of pairing that you could reach for on a warm evening or after a heavy meal. That same sauvignon, however, could provide satisfying contrast to a rich, milky wedge of Camembert, a more indulgent pairing for a chilly night or to top off a light meal.
3. Tame the Tannins
Tannins are the source of most cheese-pairing problems, which is why so many people suggest sticking with white wines—or beer—which have little to no perceptible tannins. Tannins, naturally occurring components that come from the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes, as well as from the oak barrels often used to age wines, can dry out your mouth in the same way oversteeped tea does. Bitter and astringent at high levels, they tend to be exaggerated by salt—something cheese tends to have lots of.
That said, tannins can work similarly to acidity to counter a cheese’s richness; think of a dense, milky cheddar and a rich cabernet or zinfindel: Not only will they match each other for size, but the wine's tannins will give it purchase on the cheese's concentrated milk fat.
Generally, however, the more tannic the wine, the tougher the match; try to leave the big bruisers at the dinner table and find something a little gentler for the cheese plate.
4. Throw Fat on a Fire
Take away the alcohol from wine, and all you have is grape juice—not so interesting with cheese. So alcohol is a key part of the equation (even leaving aside its socializing effects). Yet it can pose its own challenges with cheese, as salt and bitter flavors tend to fan its fire. Pair a high-alcohol wine with a dry, salty cheese and the cheese will taste even saltier, the wine more alcoholic; sip it with a bite of funky rind and all you’ll taste are the bitter notes of the cheese.
The solution is to tamp down the alcohol in wine with a cheese that has plenty of fat. With blues, richer blues versions tend to work better than dry, crumbly ones; younger aged cheeses can be more forgiving than their senior cohorts.
5. Sweetness is Delight
Sweetness is a cheese lover’s friend: Residual sugar in a wine can smooth over all the edges that prove ornery in wine-and-cheese matches. The greatest example of the power of sweetness might be port, a sweet red out of Portugal. Port is full of the three things most challenging to cheese--acid, tannins, and alcohol--and yet its sweetness makes it feel lush and smooth, a luxurious match to a tangy blue--a cheese that otherwise could be challenging in its overt acidity. Sweet whites, however, can work just as well!
Written by Tara Q. Thomas
Illustration by Liz Starin