Wine & cheese matching demystified (without removing the mystique)

For once, let’s talk about wine and cheese matching from the perspective that matters: the interaction of tart, salty, sweet, bitter and umami sensations in both wines and cheeses when they are tasted together, along with the notes of similarity and contrast that you find in the flavors and textures.

When you sit down and conscientiously examine the sensory components of, say, six different cheeses and six different wines, you invariably find several things:
  • There are probably more cheeses that taste better with white wine than with red, despite the old adage that red wines and cheese are as natural as red wines with red meats.
  • Cheeses, of course, give milky and acidic sensations – hence, the common choices between white wines varying from soft, creamy textures to sharper, acid edged qualities – but in the firmer, longer aged, deeper colored and richer flavored cheeses, factors like elevated saltiness and amino acids tend to come into play, necessitating movement towards either red wines (since unlike white wines, reds are fermented with their skins, automatically giving them deeper flavors, along with oak qualities from barrel aging that match easily with caramelized sensations in aged cheeses) or sweet wines (since high salt content is more easily balanced by sweetness).
  • Accentuated amino acids in cheeses essentially give them stronger umami components (which is why cheeses like Parmigiano, Manchego and Cheddars are often grated for usage as food condiments – essentially serving the purpose of intensifying flavors in dishes), which are generally more friendly to red wines than to whites.
  • Earthy, organic aromas and flavors in cheeses (particularly those made from sheep or goat’s milk, or else most variations of raw milk cheeses) like to find notes of similarity in wines of parallel qualities – be it the grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc, the flintiness of Riesling, stoniness of Chardonnays, the mushroomy/foresty notes of Pinot Noirs, all the way to the meaty, even gamy or leathery notes of reds from places like Bordeaux, Rioja and Piemonte and Southern France.
  • Once you get into the grand tradition of doctored cheeses – i.e. herb crusted Chèvres, peppercorned crèmes, cider washed rinds, stout soaked Cheddars, or even truffled Boschettos – the gloves come off, and all the varieties of red and white wines criss-cross in accordance to the dominant flavors that are added. For instance, it makes sense that cheeses coated in black pepper strike partnerships with peppery wines like California Zinfandels and Syrahs from around the world. Italianate herbs (i.e. rosemary, oregano, basil, etc.) will find matches with wines of Italian orientation (like those made from Sangiovese and Nebbiolo). High umami, truffled cheeses practically scream for high umami wines like Pinot Noir, or certain types of Chardonnay (re white Burgundy).
… and so it goes.

Like wine, cheese is the product of natural fermentations; and so like the great wines of the world, cheeses have become identified with specific regions of origin: Stilton from England, Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, and Roquefort and Époisses de Bourgogne from France, just like Rioja from Spain, Chianti from Italy, and Bordeaux and Bourgogne from France. Therefore, the easiest wine/cheese matches of the world are regional; although where it really gets adventurous are the matches of New World cheeses that riff off the Old World, mixed and matched with wines from both the New and Old World.

Finally, the relationship between wine and cheese is not just natural and historical, it is also sensory to the point of mysticism: you don’t have to fully understand it to know it works. Certain wines are likely to taste better when consumed with the lush, solidified combinations of milky sensations, acids, salt and amino acids in certain cheeses. Vice versa, the alcohol, acidity, sugar and tannin of certain wines not only helps the palate break down and digest the sensory components of certain cheeses, a well chosen wine can bring out distinctive, subtle flavors in a cheese otherwise not noticed without the wine.

So what are the best wine and cheese combinations? “Bests” don’t exist, but there certainly are a lot of matches that simply make sense. The subject of wine and cheese, of course, has been tackled in many places, and my own conclusions are based upon tastings upon tastings over the years, with small groups of friends, one, two, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time.

residents, Persimmon Creek Vineyards, Georgia

Some of my favorites:

Chèvre (French or Regional American)
Goat’s milk cheese is made everywhere in the world, but the historical match is Loire River Chèvre with the white wines vinified purely from Loire River grown Sauvignon Blanc. Combining Chèvre and Sauvignon Blanc is like a lesson in Wine/Food Matching 101: a mingling of sensory similarities – the lemony acidity of the grape balancing the sharply acidic taste of goat’s milk, and earthy flavor of Chèvre amplified by the minerally, often flinty and herbal taste of Sauvignon Blanc.

Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are the Loire’s best known Sauvignon Blanc producing appellations, but you may find even better matches in lesser known, idiosyncratic growths such the strongly earthy whites of Cheverny, the citrusy light taste of Quincy, and the tart/silk juxtapositions found in Menetou-Salon.

Needless to say, Sauvignon Blancs and goat cheeses are made all over the world, and the combination generally works across the board, often with serendipity. I find, for instance, handcrafted Chèvres from Tennessee, Georgia, California and the Big Island of Hawaii to be generally milder in acidity and earth tones than French Chèvres like Valencay and Crottin de Chavignol, yet almost perfect with the more mildly acidic, floral and fruit driven Sauvignon Blancs of, say, California. For the fruity yet more strongly herbal style of Sauvignon Blanc grown in New Zealand, you can take your pick: French Chèvres tend to do a better job of rounding out the tart, green qualities of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but domestic Chèvres tend to delineate the fruity, often mildly sweet qualities of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.

Herbed or Peppered Chèvres (U.S.)
The ever-popular variations of Chèvres – coated with everything from cracked black pepper (Laura Chenel’s classic Peppered Chèvre) to earthy red peppers (Bonnie Blue’s Southwest Chèvre), and from pungent Italian herbs (rosemary, oregano and dried garlic) to fragrant variations of “French” mixtures (thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, sage, bay, lavender, et al.) – drastically alter your choice of wine. Cultural matches – Chianti Classico, Montepulciano or Montalcinos with Italian herbed Chèvres, and Bourgogne Rouge, Pinot Noir or Chinon with French herbed Chèvres – are both logical and spot-on. With peppers, it can be even more fun: what can be more predictably delicious with black peppercorn goat cheeses than black peppery California Petite Sirahs or Zinfandels? With pungent, earthy Southwest style red chile coated cheeses, peppery yet perfumed Syrahs from anywhere in the world?

Feta (Greece)
Although we do not really sit down with plates of plain Feta, we use this quiveringly soft, briny, earthy goat’s milk cheese often enough in our dishes to consider the sensory ramifications of its pointedly sharp and salty taste. As with any food high in acidity and saltiness, the natural matches are wines with moderate degrees of residual sugar and/or fruitiness. Off-dry Rieslings (particularly zesty Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Kabinetts) and Chenin Blanc based Loire River whites (Vouvray for fruitiness, Savennières for dryness) are the easy ones; although since many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as well as Pinot Gris bottlings are finished with whispers of residual sugar, they do a surprisingly good job as well of rounding out the tart, salty taste of Feta.

Havarti
(Denmark)

Here’s a match rarely entering the minds of wine and cheese lovers. Whereas Chèvres are tart and earthy, Havarti is soft, creamy, almost sweet and springy with fruitiness – a natural with most California grown styles of Chardonnay precisely because of their creamy, lower acid, soft, almost sweet, springy, fruitiness.

Bufala Mozzarella (Italy)
By itself, this soft, round cheese, packed in its own liquified whey – at their best, enjoyed within days after production – invites any soft, round, fruity white of low to moderate acidity. Pinot Grigio and Frascati are naturals, but so are most Chardonnays from around the world.


Smoked Mozzarella (Italy)
For me, the smoky variations of Mozzarella positively scream for round, fruit driven Chardonnays fermented and aged in distinctively toasted barrels. Char on char, like blonde on blonde; wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Yet while sharper on the palate, the flinty qualities of French grown Sauvignon Blancs always mix and mingle easily with the smoky flavors of this style of Mozzarella; the wine’s acidity accentuating the cheese’s fresh, milky flavor and texture with contrast rather than similarity.

Charolais (France)
This product of Burgundy a slightly salty, tart cow/goat’s milk cheese that definitely calls for lightly tart dry whites meant to be enjoyed young and fresh rather than round and mature. The traditional matches are Mâcon or Pouilly-Fuissé, although from the Loire, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, or better yet, Menetou-Salon may also answer the call.

Tomme du Berger (France)
From Provence, this cheese is a pungent mix of sheep and goat’s milk; somewhat earthy in a saline sense, with a mild sharpness, slight chew around the edges and semi-soft in the middle. White wines that combine these multi-faceted qualities – crisp dryness, and lush fruit punctuated by mildly sharp acidity – make the most seamless matches. An easy regional match might be a Cassis blanc (like the famous Clos Ste. Magdeleine); or from South-West France, the little known Tursan by Baron de Bachen. But better known are any number of the great Rieslings from France’s Alsace; although a good case for either Alsatian grown Pinot Gris (highlights oily, earth tones in Tomme) or Gewürztraminer (a wine of milder acidity, but brings out spice notes in the cheese) can also be made. In this sense, Oregon Pinot Gris would also work out fine.

Brie & Camembert (France)
I’ve found that cheese and wine lovers are willing to go in at least three different directions with these lush, pungent, often fickle soft ripened cheeses: Fruity New World Chardonnays match the soft, buttery texture of these cheeses; whereas stonier, terroir driven Old World Chardonnays (from Burgundy as well as South Africa) round out both the creamy and earthy notes of these cheeses. Sauvignon Blancs (from anywhere in the world), on the other hand, offer the minerally/herbal notes to moderate the earthy, ammonia-like notes of Bries and Camemberts, on top of a sharply contrasting acidity that freshens the palate, keeping the runny, buttery taste of Bries and Camemberts from tiring the senses.

Gouda, Smoked Gouda & Super-Aged Gouda (Netherlands)
From the Dutch city of Gouda, this famous cheese is firm yet creamy in texture, developing a crunchy (from protein crystals), caramel-like sweetness as well as faintly nutty, mushroom-like notes well before it hits the market. Fruity California Chardonnays are an easy match; the sweet vanillin, French oak notes manufactured by more serious producers made all the more lush and textured by the cheese. But an even better match may be the Chardonnay based whites of France with Smoked Gouda. And it doesn’t have to be high priced Meursaults or Montrachets, because moderately scaled appellations like Petit Chablis, Saint-Aubin, Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé do a perfectly fine job of bringing out the nutty, earthy nuances of Smoked Gouda.

But once you get into the super-aged Goudas – like the Beemster Classic Extra Aged (18 months) or X.O. Extra Double Aged (26 months) – you start to veer off into red wine territory, since red wines are deeper in flavor than whites, and super-aged Goudas takes on deeper, butterscotchy, vanilla roasted pecan flavors. One step beyond full bodied whites are the reds of Beaujolais; and grand cru growths of the region – like Morgon, Chénas and Moulin-à-Vent – certainly have a red wine’s depth of flavor, underpinned by softer tannins of the Gamay Noir grape, to round out the taste of richer Gouda. I’ve also had the great success with soft but full, sweet fruit forward reds such as Zinfandels grown in Lodi (like St. Amant’s or Jesse’s Grove’s) or Contra Costa (by Carol Shelton or Rosenblum), although the super-plump reds from Spain’s Priorat on Montsant also fit this description.


Triple Crème (France)
Here begins a life of decadence; at least for me, having always been enthralled by how well some of the biggest, oakiest, and correspondingly most expensive California Chardonnays match with the richest and most lavish of soft ripened cheeses – Triple Crèmes such as the plump, white crusted Brillat-Savarin, the high octane Boursault, or the lush, sensual Explorateur. In this case, these over-the-top cheeses (defined by its having at least 75% butterfat) merely share the similar excess of rich, fat creaminess that make Chardonnays so attractive, yet are just mild enough in flavor to allow the sweet apple-like fruitiness of the grape shine on through.

Others will swear by Champagne, since there’s often a faintly sour note to Triple Crèmes like Brillat-Savarin; but if that’s the case, rather that super-dry, tart edged Bruts, I suggest softer, sleeker styles of Champagne like Blanc de Blancs (think Pol Roger or Taittinger from France, Iron Horse or Schramsberg from California).

Boursin
(France)

The intrinsic spiciness of classic Pinot Noirs is absolute dynamite with one of the most flavorful of world’s seasoned cheeses: ultra-creamy, snowy white Boursin from France’s Normandy region. Boursin comes in two flavors – Garlic & Fine Herbs, and Pepper. I particularly like the lush, fruit forward, sweetly perfumed styles of American grown Pinot Noirs for the pungently herbed, peppery tastes of these cheeses; while Boursin is the only cheese I know with the softness to match the lush yet snappy texture of American grown Pinot Noirs, yet retain the intensity of flavor to consistently smooth out the any excess tannin while amplifying the grape’s fragrant complexities.

Manchego (Spain)
Once fromagers begin aging their products for six months or longer, cheeses such as the sheep’s milk Manchego become deeper, firmer and more complex in umami driven sensations: essentially becoming cheeses for red wines, given the depth derived during red wine production (i.e. fermentation with skins and longer aging processes). Fresh, tangy, yet mature, mildly salty, faintly sweet, crunchy Manchego is one cheese that adapts to almost any red of medium to high tannin, lower acidity and some degree of wood aging. In this sense, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux style blends will seldom be difficult matches, although Manchego does have a tendency to take a little stuffing out of of slightly sharper, more lightly pigmented reds like Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and some of the simpler Sangiovese based wines of Tuscany.

Parmigiano-Reggiano (Italy)
Because of its high amino acids, we usually think of Parmigiano as more of a condiment than an eating cheese; which is a shame, because there is nothing like shavings of Parmigiano with glasses of deep, sturdy, aggressively oak aged reds made from any of the Bordeaux varieties (Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon) bottled as varietals or blends. Of course, deeper, denser Tuscan reds such as Brunello respond readily to the deep, fruity/nutty, crystallized taste of Parmigiano, which brings out a sweetness of oak and tannin laden wines not otherwise perceived by the palate. The Italians themselves, as it were, are fond of serving Parmigiano -Reggiano with the light, lithe, lively sparkling wines of Veneto called Prosecco; in which case, you'll find similarities of textures (the crunch of the cheese, the crispness of the sparklers) and sweetness (the whispers of sweetness in Prosecco coaxing out the sweet crystal taste of the cheese). Big red, light sparkler... it's all good.

Cheddars (International)
Practically all the world’s great aged Cheddars – from English Farmhouse to Canadian Diamond, and domestics like the Sharps of Vermont and Tillamook in Oregon – possess even firmer, tangier, but also deeper caramelized butter flavors that do amazing jobs of smoothing out the rough, boisterous edges of young to middle aged reds manufactured from Cabernet Sauvignon and other high extract, generous tannin grapes. By the same token, the sharp, saturated taste of many Cheddars may smother the nuances of the same reds if well matured (cellared fifteen years or longer), but how many of us are actually drinking this on a regular basis anyway?


Blue Cheeses (International)
Generally speaking, the salty, sharp, and yes, moldy, taste of the great blue veined cheeses of the world respond best to the great sweet wines of the world – easy as pie, and as pleasing as pineapple sauce on a ham. After that, the preferences become personal. Many swear by French Sauternes with France’s ewe’s milk Roquefort (most other blue cheeses are made from cow’s milk), although I like the somewhat rounder, smoother, nevertheless rich and tangy blue cheese quality of Iowa’s Maytag Blue and Rogue Creamery's Oregon Blue even better with these golden, full bodied blends of late picked Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Denmark’s Danablu is just as silky as the aforementioned, but my instinct is to pull out a zestier, flowery, dried apricot-like late harvest Riesling (German, Californian, or Australasian) rather than a Sauternes to match its somewhat sharp, briny bite. The Brits reach for a well aged Vintage or Tawny Port when they unwrap their Stilton – magnificently deep, creamy, yet “mellow” in its blue-cheesiness – although I have been surprised by how equal to the match with fortified reds Italy’s Gorgonzola can be, for all its mild, buttery, crumbly sensations.

In fact, Gorgonzola with more moderately alcoholic, lusciously sweet reds such as Italy's Recioto di Valpolicella, Banyuls from France, and the occasionally seen Late Harvest Zinfandels from California are all surprisingly effortless matches.

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