Cheese and wine matching: Top tips and classic matches
It is hardly surprising that there is a long wine and cheese pairing history, as both products have ancient origins.
We don’t know precisely when or even where cheese-making started. Possibly it was when sheep were domesticated, around 8,000 BC, and there is evidence of the ancient art in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. We also know that the Roman Empire spread the art of cheese-making, and cheese-making became a mainly European cultural product. After Rome collapsed, established local and diverse cheese traditions continued, and many kinds of cheese we are familiar with today were recorded in medieval times. Subsequently, these spread worldwide, first through 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 an equal cheese culture and makes around 850 kinds*. And great cheeses can be found worldwide – check out the World Cheese Awards.
Meanwhile, winemaking origins are almost as obscure, but wine and cheese share historical and geographic roots. From a taste perspective, wine and cheese have probably evolved together. No wonder those from the same locality may make an ideal match. In these days of globalism, many other pleasurable combinations are possible.
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 principal sources of milk – a Cow, Ewe or Goat. However, Buffalo, Llama or 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. Indeed, it’s possible that the first cheese made was by accident, where fresh milk was stored and carried in the stomachs of ruminants, exposing it to rennet and so curdling it.
The type of cheese made depends on various factors. The milk source, the strain of bacteria used, the curd treatment and finally, how long the cheese matures. No wonder then that there are so many different traditions and different examples!
Soft cheeses retain whey. With harder cheeses, the curds are repeatedly cut to drain off the whey. Sometimes these are heated to harden them. Salt is often a preservative.
Pressing is used to make various shapes and sizes. The harder this pressing is, the denser the cheese becomes. It then matures; for days, weeks, months or even years. Cheese makes an ideal medium to grow bacteria, mould and fungi. These all add distinctive flavours.
Cheese and Wine matching
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 considering some guidelines to get a good synergy – where the outcome is more than the sum of the parts. In addition, as with any wine and food combination, some disasters are worth avoiding. So here are the 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. However, dry white wine is always the safest bet. The idea that red wine matches cheese 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 good examples. Equally, an older red wine with softened tannins will become easier to match. Or choose a low-tannin fruity red (like Beaujolais or Valpolicella) or a Rosé, as those styles act more like 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, subduing its flavour. Therefore, cheeses should be at room temperature for the best taste and texture – an hour left out of the fridge should do.
5. Look to match origins. This is where the local wine and the local cheese have co-evolved. This is very common in Europe. For British cheese, follow this general guide and remember that apple juice, cider, beer and even whisky can be excellent partners too.
And Five more
6. Tannins found in red wine rarely match with soft cheese, and pairing tannins with blue cheese can taste metallic. Cheeses that contain fruit are also tricky. For Stilton made with Apricots, then choose a sweet white. Smoked cheeses are pungent and generally do not pair well – a highly aromatic wine like Gewürztraminer 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 suitable for quiet experimentation, but one of the best ideas is choosing one great cheese first and then matching it.
8. Don’t waste money matching expensive 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. Instead, choose small amounts of artisanal cheeses from a good deli or market stall. There’s no need to spend a fortune to make great taste combinations; particularly, there’s excellent value in the under £12 wine range.
9. In a restaurant, if you have chosen a white wine for the starter, keep a glass 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 both intensities. Very salty blues will need much sweeter wine and vice-versa.
Wine and cheese classics
Sauvignon Blanc and Goat’s Cheese
The sharper malic acid in Sauvignon Blanc cuts through the cheese’s mouth-coating fat and refreshes the palate. 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. Cut your white wine back with soft cheese if it tastes too acidic!
Chablis and Chaource
Matching Chablis with Chaource is a great example of local produce pairing. Chaorce comes from the Champagne region, close to 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. It comes as small, tall cylinders from unpasteurised Cows milk and 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. Again, Chablis’ rapier acidity and steely/gunflint character make a great match.
For the same reason, Chaource is perfect with Champagne. With reds, you can get away with a light red or rosé if tannins are minimal – the local Rosé les Riceys (a young light Pinot Noir) or Beaujolais are delicious.
Alsace Gewürztraminer and Munster
Munster is another Monastic cheese, first made in the 9th century and named after Munster’s town (itself meaning Monastery) in Alsace. This pungent cow’s milk cheese has a yellow-orange brine-washed rind. The brine encourages bacteria, and it’s this that makes it pong. It takes five weeks to three months to mature, and it gets ever more farmyard-smelly and penetrating. Gewürztraminer’s nose of heady Turkish Delight, rose water, and a slightly spiced oily texture makes a great match. Sweeter Gewürztraminer from Alsace or Germany will cope with a very mature Munster. Gewürztraminer is perhaps the only wine capable of standing up to smoked cheeses. Alternatively, Fino Sherry is also 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. Many Cheddars are 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. Unpasteurised cow’s milk makes this highly individual and hand-made farmhouse cheddar. Pale in colour, it’s gamey and tangy from 12 months of maturity in a cloth wrap. It’s also excellent with a dram of Single Malt Whisky!
Rioja Tinto and Manchego
Red Rioja is another red with high tannin content and demands hard, dry cheese with high protein and low fat like Manchego. It comes from the Manchega breed of sheep of Spain’s La Mancha. The Arabs called this land Al Mansha (meaning “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 another traditional Spanish pairing.
Apply the same thinking to the great red wines of Italy. Try Barolo, Amarone, and Chianti Classico with old Grana Padano, Parmigiana Reggiano, or aged Fontina.
Sauternes and Roquefort
Roquefort is one of the world’s greatest blue cheeses and was the first to get legal protection in 1925. As a result, only those cheeses from the limestone caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France can be Roquefort. The cheese uses unpasteurised ewe’s milk. It has veins of Penicillium Roqueforti, a blue mould unique to those caves. The cheese has a slightly rancid smell and taste, while the 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, briny 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. Finally, Hungarian Tokaji is perhaps the only wine capable of standing up to Danish Blue.
This is just a short but useful guide. There are no rights and wrongs, so experiment and enjoy!
Want to find out more? Please read my review of the Oxford Companion to Cheese.
And if you like wine and cheese pairing, why not try honey and cheese matching too?
*according to “A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles” by Ned Palmer, in 2019.