Cheese and wine matching: Top tips and classic matches
It is hardly surprising that there is a long history of wine and cheese pairing as both products have long had local origins and identities.
We don’t know exactly when and where cheese making started. Possibly it was when sheep were domesticated, around 8,000 BC. We do know for sure that the Romans spread the art of cheese making. Indeed, cheese is a mainly a European cultural product. When Rome collapsed, local and diverse traditions replaced it that are still with us to this day. Some of these spread around the world, first by European colonialism, then more by the increasing globalisation of food and taste.
While France, Italy, Spain and Germany are rightly proud of their local cheese making traditions and go to great lengths to protect them, Britain has a cheese culture every bit their equal and produces around 700 different kinds. A huge choice – heaven!
Meanwhile, the origins of wine making are almost as obscure, but there is a remarkable similarity to cheese historically and geographically. From a taste perspective, wine and cheese have probably evolved together. No wonder then that those from the same locality may make an ideal match. In these days of globalism, there are many other pleasurable combinations.
What is cheese?
Cheese is coagulated fresh milk, a great way of preserving milk and a nutritious food capable of easy transportation. Typically it will be made from three principle sources of milk – a Cow, Ewe or Goat. However, Buffalo, Llama or even Yak milk can be employed.
Bacteria acidify the milk before curdling it with rennet or a vegetarian alternative. The curds will form the cheese while the whey is the liquid that is drained off.
The type of cheese made depends on various factors. The source of the milk, the strain of bacteria used, curd treatment and how the long the cheese matures. No wonder then that there are so many different traditions and different examples!
Soft cheeses have whey remaining. With harder cheeses, the curds are repeatedly cut to drain off the whey. Sometimes these are heated to harden them. Salt is often the preservative.
Pressing is used to make various shapes and sizes. The harder this is, the denser the cheese becomes. It is then left to mature; for weeks, months or even years. Cheese makes an ideal medium to grow bacteria, mould and fungi. These add distinctive flavours.
Regarding matching wine and cheese, there are no rules and no rights and wrongs. However, with the wealth of wines and cheeses available today, it’s worth knowing about some guidelines to get a good synergy – where the outcome is more than the sum of the parts. As with any wine and food combinations, some disasters are worth avoiding. So here are top tips and some examples of tried-and-tested pairings.
Five tips for wine and cheese matching
1. Experimentation is fun; there is so much wine and cheese available, and if you like it that’s all that matters. Do remember that a dry white wine is always your safest bet. The idea that red wine matches best is entirely fallacious, which might come as a shock!
2. White wine is more versatile than red because it has no tannin. Tannins are the challenge, and their astringency makes red wine harder to match well. For a tannic red wine choose drier hard cheese – mature Cheddar, Parmesan and Manchego are all good examples. Equally, an older red wine where the tannins have softened will become easier to match. Or choose a low-tannin fruity red (like Beaujolais or Valpolicella) or a Rosé, as they act more like a white wine.
3. Cooked cheeses match red wines much more easily as heat completely alters both flavour and texture – think of all those lovely Italian pasta dishes made with cheese – delicious with young tannic reds.
4. At fridge temperature, the fat in cheese is very hard, meaning the flavour is subdued when cold. For the best taste and texture, cheeses should be at room temperature – an hour out of the fridge should do.
5. Look to match origins, where the local wine and the local cheese have evolved together – this is very easily done in France and Italy as long as you know the geography! For British cheese, follow this general guide and remember that apple juice, cider, beer and even whisky can be excellent too.
And five more
6. Tannins found in red wine rarely match with soft cheese and pairing tannins with blue cheese can end up tasting metallic. Cheeses that contain fruit are also tricky. For Stilton made with Apricots, then choose a sweet white. Smoked cheeses are often pungent and do not pair well – a highly aromatic wine like Gewurztraminer is the best bet.
7. Beware the cheeseboard – the chances of one wine matching the whole range of cheeses on offer is nil. A cheeseboard is good for quiet experimentation, but one of the best ideas is to choose just one great cheese and then match to that.
8. Don’t waste money with matching expensive bottles of wine with cheese – most cheeses will take some of the wine’s complexity away. Equally, don’t skimp on cheese quality. Industrially processed cheese is unlikely to be interesting. Choose small amounts of artisanal cheeses from a good deli or market stall. There’s no need to spend a fortune to make some great taste combinations, in particular, there’s great value in the £6-£12 wine range.
9. In a restaurant, if you have chosen a white wine for the starter then keep a glass of it back for the cheese, it’s likely to work better than saving some of the red from the main course.
10. Salt and Sweet are classic, the main point here is to balance the intensities of both. Very salty blues will need much sweeter wine, and vice-versa.
Wine and cheese classics
Sauvignon Blanc and Goat’s Cheese
The high malic acid in Sauvignon Blanc cuts through the mouth-coating fat of the cheese and leaves the palate refreshed. The best version might be Sancerre with the aged local Chavignol. However, most Sauvies from New Zealand, South Africa or Chile will also work well. High acidity is the order of the day here. If your white wine tastes too acidic, then cut it back with some soft cheese!
Chablis and Chaource
Chablis and Chaource are another local produce matching. Chaorce comes from the Champagne region, not far from Chablis in northern Burgundy. Produced since the middle ages, it was probably first made by the Monks of nearby Pontigny Abbey and has enjoyed protected status since 1970. Formed in small, tall cylinders from unpasteurized Cows milk it features a white Penicillin bloomy rind. Sold at two weeks old, it deepens to an ivory colour with age and can taste of mushrooms, cream and hazelnut. Chablis’ rapier acidity and steely/gunflint character make a great match.
For the same reason, Chaource is perfect with Champagne. With reds you can also get away with a light red or rosé as long as tannins are minimal – the local Rosé les Riceys, (a young light Pinot Noir) or Beaujolais are delicious.
Alsace Gewurztraminer and Munster
Munster is another Monastic cheese, first made in the 9th century and named after the town of Munster (itself meaning Monastery) in Alsace. Protected since 1969, this is a classic pungent cow’s milk cheese with a yellow-orange brine-washed rind. The brine encourages bacteria, and it’s this that makes it pong. It takes between 5 weeks and three months to mature, and it gets ever more farmyard-smelly and penetrating. Gewurztraminer’s nose of heady Turkish Delight, rose water and a slightly spiced oily texture makes a great match. Sweeter Gewurztraminer, either from Alsace or Germany will cope with very mature Munster. Gewurztraminer is perhaps the only wine capable of standing up to smoked cheeses. Alternatively, Fino sherry is a great match.
Claret and Cheddar
Red wines with high tannin content are the hardest pairing and need hard cheeses. Young Bordeaux is problematic in this respect, so go for British Cheddar. There are many Cheddars produced worldwide, named after the cheddaring process first invented in Somerset. The curds are cubed and stacked to drain off the whey then salted and pressed into a hard cheese which dries out as it matures. Look for artisanal aged cheddar, for example, the Isle of Mull. Unpasteurized cow’s milk makes this highly individual and hand-made farmhouse cheddar. Pale in colour, it’s gamey and tangy from 12 months maturity in a cloth wrap. It’s also excellent with a dram of Single Malt Whisky!
Rioja and Manchego
Rioja is another red wine that can have high tannin content and so demands hard, dry cheese with high protein and low fat like Manchego. Made from the Manchega breed of sheep found in Spain’s La Mancha. The Arabs called this land Al Mansha, “waterless land” after the hot, arid summers and freezing winters. Protected by law this cheese claims a 2000 year history. White to ivory coloured, slightly salty and piquant, Manchego is mild when young but adds bite with age. Other tannic reds that work well with it include Syrah from the Northern Rhône. Oloroso Sherry is a traditional Spanish pairing.
Apply the same thinking to the great red wines of Italy. Barolo, Amarone or Chianti with old Grana Padano or aged Fontina is sublime.
Sauternes and Roquefort
Roquefort is one of the world’s greatest blue cheeses. In 1925 it became the first cheese to be legally protected. Only those cheeses aged in the limestone caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France can be called Roquefort. The cheese uses unpasteurised ewe’s milk. It has veins of Penicillium Roqueforti. It’s a blue mould unique to those caves. It has a slightly rancid smell, and taste, a buttery texture and the blue veins provide a sharp contrast. The flavour intensifies to a salty finish, so matching it with Sauternes is a sweet/salt classic. The botrytised tangy sweetness of a good Sauternes melds effortlessly with the creamy salty blue.
Sweet wines and blue cheese needn’t stop there, a good Stilton and Port is another effortless classic. And don’t overlook other Port-style wines such as Banyuls or Maury. Further afield, Australian “stickies” such as Rutherglen Muscat make a good match. Hungarian Tokaji is perhaps the only wine capable of standing up to Danish Blue.
Experiment and enjoy!
Find out more? Please read my review of the Oxford Companion to cheese.