I know that pairing cheese and wine can be a scary business. Nobody wants to ruin a potentially tasteful moment. Therefore I want to introduce a few very useful rules of thumb or advice to help you out. They are so easy that if you are somewhat interested in the subject, you’ll remember.
But first a little bit about what cheese is and what makes various cheeses taste different!
Cheese consists of only three ingredients: Milk, Rennet and Salt. If it says anything else on the label (apart from added herbs and things like that to flavor), it’s not cheese. If you buy grated or shredded cheese an anti caking ingredient might have been added, so that’s Okay.
So cheese is solidified milk in a way as long as there has been added some yeasty-style starter. This can be added or the milk “grabs” it from the natural surroundings. This is to increase the acidity levels of the milk so that the rennet will be accepted so to speak, and consequently the milk starts to coagulate. What is then left is the whey (which is poured away) and the solids that will eventually become the cheese. But before this, some milk is gently heated, because that is part of the process, while some milk is not. Some are pasteurized, normally that means heated to 72° C (162° F) for 15 seconds to kill any unwanted bacteria (and unfortunately the wanted ones, too) while some fortunately stay unpasteurized.
The solids are then usually cut into small pieces before they are put into molds for storing, pressing, salting, aging, etc. Basically, this is it.
It is with cheese as wine. Various types of milk will give various types of taste. A mountain cheese tastes different from a cheese made from milk from animals grassing on the plains. Summer milk is different from winter milk and so on. The cow, or goat or sheep race will give different cheeses. Is it made commercially at a big dairy or is it an artisanal cheese made at the farm. Huge difference. Whether the milk is pasteurized or not also has an impact on the final product.
There are basically three types of milk that go into cheese, at least in the western world; Cow’s milk; Goat’s milk and Sheep’s milk. The latter sometimes also referred to as ewe’s milk.
In other parts of the world you will find cheese made from the milk of a variety of animals such as camel and yak to name two very common.
And just for the record, real Mozzarella should be made from Buffalo milk.
So here we go for the pairing advice!
Advice number One:
White wine generally pairs better with cheese than red wine. So if in doubt; choose white.
Why is this so? Simply put, cheese will affect the taste of the wine more than the wine will affect the taste of the cheese. A bold, highly tannic red wine cancels out the flavor of most cheese and leaves a soapy or metallic taste in the mouth. On the other hand, the creamy richness of cheese is complemented by a buttery Chardonnay or acidic Sauvignon Blanc, especially if there is not a dominant characteristic in the wine — too much oak (as you will see from my recommendations), extremely high alcohol content, etc. — it won’t combine well with cheese.
This does not mean that no cheese pairs well with red wine, not at all. Keep reading and when in doubt come back to www.cheeseandyou.com for advice.
Advice number Two:
You cannot do much wrong if you have cheese and wine from the same region. That’s what the locals do. However, a note of caution: When I say that cheese and wine from the same area pair well, I mean the original area.
This explained: Chèvre is originally from the Loire valley in France. Chèvre pairs extremely well with Sauvugnon blanc, which is the dominant white grape variety there. So if you have a Chèvre from California which is quite possible, you should still have Sauvignon blanc even though the dominant white in California is Chardonnay.
I am more after the grape varieties and their characteristics. That’s what is important to look for. So if a cheese requires a Riesling, this is usually a dry one making most Riesling from the Pacific rim unfit because they have a light sweetness attached to them.
Advice number Three
The saltier the cheese, the sweeter the wine. The saltiest cheeses are usually the blue ones like Roquefort, Bleu d’Auvergne, Gorgonzola and not to forget the Stilton. Opposites attract each other, or complement each other. That’s why salty cheese pairs so well with sweet wines. White or red. There are some classics: Roquefort and Sauternes (Sweet white) and Stilton and Port (Sweet fortified red) (Yes, there are dry port, and white port, but they are all rare).
Advice number Four
How to combine red wine and cheese? There are a few things to remember. All cheese has some salt content, and salt will to a greater or lesser degree react with the tannins in a wine. The only exception to this is if you have crumbly and firm paste cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino and the like. They can bear over with the tannins without leaving you with all metal taste on your palate.
Having said all this, mature red wine and young fruity red wine like Beaujolais, Valpolicella and Joven works well.
Another thing to remember is that on a general note old-world reds work better than new world reds. That’s because the old world reds are subtler, slimmer, and more elegant than new world reds that unfortunately in many instances are over extracted and over oaked. I am not saying that is wrong as such, but it leaves you with a lot of wine in your mouth wondering where the cheese is. Cheese is however much or little taste and odor is has, a delicate matter and needs to be respected for that when choosing wine
Advice number Five:
Mature wine, red or white, pairs well with most cheese. In other words you don’t do much wrong if you serve mature wine with your cheese. But still, remember the last paragraph of rule number four.
Advice number Six:
The wine you drink needs higher concentration if you have mature cheese than if you have cheese that has not been aged. Rule of thumb: More expensive cheese requires more expensive wine. Or put more popular: better cheese requires better wine.
Advice number Seven:
Moderately bitter beer, cider, orange wine (natural wine) and sherry can in many instances substitute white or red wine. You can always have a clean black tea with your cheese, in my opinion anyway.
Advice number Eight:
Keep the number of cheeses down. The bigger the variety on your cheese plates the bigger the chance to go wrong in the wine pairing. If you’re inviting folks over for a cheese party, make sure you offer various wines as well, at least red and white. Blue cheeses do require some sweetness in the wine, remember. If the cheese you serve is part of a meal, one or two pieces of cheese is enough, and the matching is all that easier.
Advice number Nine:
Artisanal cheese and/or unpasteurized cheese are more demanding than commercially produced and/or pasteurized cheese. There is more taste which requires more from the paring wine(s), more tasteful wines.
Advice number Ten:
I personally do not drink or serve liquor with cheese but I do recommend it as worth trying sometimes. Both Whisky and Calvados work fine with cheese. The Whisky mostly with Cheddar type cheese and the Calvados with Camembert type cheese. For the Whisky choose single malts and add a few drops of water.