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Pairing Wine and Cheese

by David on June 3, 2010

Wine and cheese have always been considered a classic combination and one of life’s great pleasures. It evokes romantic images of a sumptuous supper in front of a blazing fire. It is also a catalyst of great debate among wine and food lovers because, frankly, pairing wine with cheese is a little more challenging than it is with other foods. While there’s been very little scientific study of this, there’s certainly been plenty of informal evaluation. Many wine lovers have found that a number of cheeses, especially those luscious triple cream cheeses we love so much, coat the palate with fat and the flavor of the wine, especially red wine, is deadened. The astringency is deadened too, which some might think of as a plus!

As you experiment with your own combinations, you’re likely to find that white wines, especially high acid whites, are more versatile than reds with cheese. The wonderful, high acidity common to whites gives them their versatility. The acid cuts through the rich, buttery cheese and the wine lives to fight another day!

Red wines of average acidity don’t always have what it takes to equal the palate coating effect, so the wine gets the one-two punch – the cheese knocks it down and robs it of some of its character. And for reasons only food scientists might attempt to explain, when there’s an actual clash of flavors, it’s far more likely to occur with a red-wine pairing.

Does this mean you shouldn’t pair red wine with cheese? Of course not! But you might think twice before you serve one of your most prized red wines with a triple-cream Brie or a Maytag blue. You might not taste what you paid for in terms of the wine.

If you want the wine and cheese to truly complement each other, here’s a time-honored guideline: the bigger and more tannic the red wine, the harder the cheese. That’s quite a generalization, but it works a lot of the time. It’s hard to go wrong when you serve hard and semi-hard cheeses with red wine, especially nutty cheeses like Edam or a good, aged Cheddar. Most hard cheeses are nice with whites too.

This means that hard cheeses are the most versatile cheeses and high-acid whites, including sparkling wines, are the most versatile wines. Sweet wines are remarkably adaptable too, especially with strong, difficult-to-match flavors. These are good tricks to keep in mind for your next wine and food party.

So, when you serve soft, creamy cheeses like St. Andre or Camembert, crisp whites and bubblies are a great match. It’s hard not to feel fabulous when you’re sipping some sparkling wine and indulging in some triple-cream! Or, try a crisp Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay that’s not too buttery and rich.

For semi-soft cheeses, again, mainly whites fit the bill and there’s plenty of  latitude. If the cheese has hints of sweetness, then pick a fruity or slightly sweet white like Viognier or Chenin Blanc so the cheese doesn’t make the wine seem sour. If you’re craving red wine, go with fruity, low-tannin reds like a Beaujolais style or a soft Pinot Noir.

Blue cheese is such a wonderful thing, but it’s a good example of a challenging flavor to match, and it can be hard on dry, red wine. Of course, the classic combinations are Port and Stilton or a Sauterne style with Roquefort, but most blue-veined cheeses with sweet or slightly sweet wines work together beautifully. This is not to say that blue cheese and red wine can’t work, but it’s trickier. Just taste your combination before you serve it to guests to see how you like it.

Goat cheese is in a category all by itself. It has a high acid and it’s best to serve a wine of at least equal acidity or the wine will seem dull. Goat cheese with Sauvignon Blanc is another time-tested combination. The two grew up together, which is often something to consider in pairing wine with food. It’s hard to explain, but somehow the food and wine of a region often evolve together in a delicious way. This is true in the Loire Valley of France, which has been one of the world’s most important sources of goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc for a very long time. Fortunately, the combination stands strong regardless of the country of origin, which means that if you pair any goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc it’s likely to be a tasty combination. Other high-acid whites will work well too.

Do you have a taste for extreme, pungent cheese? For an all-around, extreme-taste experience, if you dare, try your Munster with a massive red like our Howell Mountain Cabernet or an Amarone. It’s kind of like matching muscle with muscle – it will either be a powerful marriage or a fist fight depending upon the individual players. A more peaceful route is to select a sweet wine, which will create more of a sense of harmony. Sweet, fortified wines like Port or a late harvest wine make good choices.

There’s also “perception as reality” to consider. If you’re one of those lucky people having a romantic supper in front of a blazing fire, just about anything is going to taste great because of your mood, and who can argue with that? The importance of mood and setting can’t be underestimated when it comes to enjoying a meal, along with an infinite allowance for personal preference. Which brings us back to our mantra: as always, with wine and food, you make the rules because you’re the best judge of what tastes good to you. Bon appétit!

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