Some things in life naturally go together; things like Fall and pumpkins, ocean and sand, paint and canvas, and campfires and s’mores. One of the more universal pairings is cheese and wine. A snack of this favorite pair can be found nearly anywhere in the world. The trick, however, can be pairing one with the other.
When pairing cheese with wine, consider a few variables. First, think aroma. The goal is complimentary scents, much like determining the correct seasonings for a recipe. The scent of one should not overwhelm or conflict with the other, but rather should compliment. Then, there is flavor. Consider the relationship between the savory taste of the cheese when paired with the fruit of the wine and its level of sweetness. Saltier cheeses call for sweeter wines. Next is the acidity level of the cheese and the wine. A more acidic cheese pairs better with a wine that makes one’s mouth pucker. Generally, white wines are more acidic than red. Sapidity is the word for the fullness of taste enjoyed from a cheese or a wine. Match mild with mild and bold with bold. However, when it comes to complexity, opposites attract. A simple cheese pairs better with a complex wine, and vice versa. Finally, there is finish. When a cheese hangs on the tongue, the wine should as well, and the blend should be harmonious. If what lingers is a more metallic taste, the pairing is not a successful one.
Whether choosing a snack to have at home or organizing and hosting a cheese and wine tasting event, the process is less intimidating than one might think. First, seek expert help where available. Many grocery stores employ knowledgable cheese and wine department staff who can suggest which cheeses go with which wines. When a selection is required, such as for a tasting party, helpful guidelines exist. Unless wine is the more important component to the pairing, start with cheese. For a tasting, choose four or five varieties. Cheese choices should include a range of tastes and textures. Select a mild, soft cheese such as a triple crème, like Fromager d’Affinois or Cremont; a firm, white cheese, like fontina, Gruyère, Gouda, or a manchego; a sharper cheese, such as a parmigiana-reggiano, a pecorino, or Sbrinz; and, finally, a good, strong-scented cheese like Muenster, Berkshire blue, or Stilton.
Next, select a wine to try with each cheese. Beginning with the mild cheeses, triple crème cheese are rich and buttery, with a mild, subtle taste. When served at the proper temperature, they are soft and spreadable. A good choice for the triple crème is a Pinot blanc. The cheese pairs well with the fruity flavor of the wine. Other wine choices for this cheese include Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon blends, and Blanc de Blanc champagne. Pair the creamy Cremont with a crisp Sauvignon blanc or Sancerre, Chenin blanc, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, Tempranillo blends, Chianti Classico, or a nice Malbec.
Moving on to the firm white cheeses, fontina is buttery, nutty, and full-flavored. Medium bodied wines, such as Chardonnay and Riesling, complement it well. Other good pairing choices include Pinot noir, Syrah, and Prosecco. Gruyère is nutty and slightly sweet, with a touch of a musty, mushroomy taste. It pairs well with full-bodied, berry-influenced wines. Good choices are Gewürztraminer, Sémillon blends, Shiraz, Merlot, and Chenin blanc dessert wine. Gouda is one of the world’s most popular cheeses. With proper aging, it is grainy, salty, and tangy, boasting a hint of butterscotch at the finish. With its saltiness, Gouda is not the cheese to pair with subtler wines. A perfect choice is the hearty Cabernet Sauvignon. Gouda can also be paired with Pinot gris, Sauvignon blanc, Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, and Chianti Classico. Manchego has a fashionable and easily recognizable chevron rind. A real crowd pleaser, it boasts both a bite and an underlying sweetness. This cheese blends best with youthful whites, such Riesling and Albariño, and, in the red category, with Tempranillo blends, Sangiovese, and Gamay.
When considering sharper cheeses, parmigiano-reggiano is cheese with a bite. Hard and crumbly, it sets the mouth atingle all on its own. Lighter wines like Pinot grigio give this big cheese room to shine. When choosing a red wine, it should have a big flavor and layers of fruit. Good choices are Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, and Valpolicella. Another nice choice is a pecorino cheese. Sweet and mellow, it has a mild, peppery finish. For a white pairing, choose Verdicchio or Chenin Blanc. Red choices include Barbera d’Alba, Valpolicella Ripasso, Sangiovese blends. Finally, pecorino blends well with Prosecco. Sbrinz is a popular cheese made in Switzerland. It has a dense texture and strong, spicy, and nutty flavors. It straddles the line between a sharp cheese and a blue cheese. A first choice wine pairing is the red berry flavored Barbera d’Alba. Still, Sbrinz blends well with many other wines, including whites such as Chardonnay, Riesling, and Grüner Veltliner. Besides the Barbera d’Alba, Sbrinz pairs with Malbec, Shiraz, and Tempranillo blend red wines.
Finally, there are the strong cheeses, often referred to as “stinky” cheeses. Despite their strong scent, these cheeses are equally strong on great flavor. Muenster has an assertive tang. Pairing best with crisp or spicy whites, one’s first choice should be Gewürztraminer. Pinot blanc, Riesling, and Albariño are additional great white wine choices to pair with Muenster. When choosing a red wine, one cannot go wrong with Shiraz and Zinfandel. Muenster also pairs well with Moscati d’Asti dessert wine. Berkshire Blue has a big flavor, but the zing of the blue does not overwhelm the buttery Jersey cow milk. Pair it first with a nice Malbec. White wine choices are limited to Chardonnay, since other whites do not have the depth to match the Berkshire Blue. Red options include Grenache or Garnacha blends, Merlot blends, Tempranillo blends, and Sangiovese. Stilton cheese has a rich tang, a buttery texture, and a comparatively mellow flavor. It is strong without being overpowering. Stilton has one of the widest list of wine partners of the blue cheeses. It is classically matched with port. Other tasty wine partners include Muscat and Riesling in the white category, and Gamay and Tempranillo blends in the red.
When preparing cheeses and wines for tasting, temperature is important. Cheese should be served at room temperature. Red wines, opened about an hour before tasting, should be served at 65 degrees. Ideal white wine temperatures range from 45-60 degrees, while sparkling wines are best served at 45 degrees. Cheese and wine tastings should move in crescendo fashion: mild to strong, soft to hard, young to old. This progression makes sense, as it is difficult to return to a milder pairing once stronger ones have been enjoyed.
Cheese and wine tasting is a leisurely endeavor, the perfect time to relax and enjoy the sensations of each pairing. As tasting begins, start with smell. Take a few moments to savor the scent of the cheese and the wine separately. Then, taste the wine on a neutral palate, allowing it to roll on the tongue. Afterwards, taste the cheese. Follow this by tasting the two together, allowing them the opportunity to mingle in the mouth while the aromas and flavors register. Once swallowed, enjoy the finish, savoring the tastes once they have left the mouth. Between tastings, refresh the palate with water and some plain bread before moving on to the next pair.
The idea of pairing cheese with wine sounds intimidating, but it does not have to be. Advice is always readily available from a store cheesemonger, from a friend, or even from internet sources. If desired, turn the tasting into a unique social gathering where friends can learn and enjoy together. The easiest presentation for a cheese and wine tasting party is self served. Place the cheeses with their corresponding wines, interspersed with small baskets of bread for palate cleansing. Also, be sure that water is on hand. Pre-cut the cheeses so guests can choose a morsel with ease. It is fun to compare opinions on how well the pairs blend as tasting progresses. If desired, provide note cards and pens so guests can record their thoughts. For a more studied approach to note taking, wine and cheese scoring cards are easily found online. Afterward enjoying the selections, guests can go back to enjoy their favorites and to try out their own pairings. This is a good time to bring out other accompaniments such as fruit, meats, jams, cornichons, olives, and nuts.
With so many different choices of both cheese and wine, pairing the two is a flavorful, never-ending adventure. The best thing about pairing cheese and wine is that taste is subjective; therefore, there really is no way to go wrong.