Perhaps the ultimate match of food with beverage is wine and cheese. They’re nearly twins.
Both date to ancient times. Both are fermented. Both are governed, all over the world, by appellation and quality standards. And, most important, each reflects the place where it is born, its terroir. One translates its terroir via a vine. The udder, by an udder.
Matching cheese with wine is the same as matching any food with wine. Matches work – or don’t – because of what’s in the wine and in the cheese, things such as acidity or fat.
Many people follow the adage “If they grow together, they go together” and, certainly, many dozens of regional matches score. For example, a small log of fresh Loire Valley chèvre (French goat’s cheese) tastes terrific with a crisp Sancerre from the same region.
But, in truth, that the Sancerre and the cheese come from the same region of France is secondary. What matters more is that both the cheese and the wine contain certain components or elements that go well together.
The elements that count with wine and cheese combinations – indeed, with any food and wine match – are acid, fat, sweetness, salt, tannin and alcohol. Both wine and cheese can share some of these elements (acid, sweet, salt). Others are specific to either cheese or wine (fat, tannin, alcohol).
The main reason that Sancerre and chèvre marry well is that both are high in acidity – one of the key components of many foods and all well-made wines. In a food and wine combination, when acid meets acid … that’s electric. There really isn’t a better explanation for the happy marriage. (Concerned what wine will marry that high-acid salad vinaigrette? Try an off-dry German Riesling.)
Also, acidity is a good cleanser of fat from the palate – and the explication why Brie and Chablis (or Munster and Alsace Gewurztraminer) work well as a pair.
Salt & sugar
Another pair of elements that have a natural affinity for each other is the duo of salt and sweetness – which goes a long way toward explaining why Port and Stilton cheese is such a famous match. This twosome of sugar and salt is reflected in the successful pairing of most any wine with a bit of sweetness and many blue or well-salted cheeses.
Some of the best wines for firm cheeses are tannic red wines. That’s because as a cheese ages (or, said another way, becomes firmer), it evaporates its water content and concentrates its fat – and fat and tannin are made for each other (think prime rib and Cabernet Sauvignon). That explains why Parmigiano-Reggiano is delicious with Amarone della Valpolicella, or Barolo, or other hefty, tannic red wines.
Perhaps the best wine for most any kind of cheese is Champagne or Champagne-method sparkling wine. That may be because most cheeses are mildly sweet (they’re made of milk, after all) and so are these wines, with their ever-so-slight touch of sugar. Two slightly sweet things – just like two slightly acidic things – make magic in the mouth.
Champagne and sparkling wine also sport bracing acidity, a good foil for fat and a very common element in cheese. And, anyway, bubbles are good scrubbers of the richness of many cheeses.
Red or white?
By and large, and despite common assumptions, white wines do a better job than red wines as regular partners for cheese. And lighter red wines, by and large, are tastier than heavier red wines.
More people around the world drink (dry or off-dry) white wine with their cheese than they do red. We Americans think that red wine is the best partner to cheese because we are, as a historical hangover, British – and the British were wont to sip their reds with their cheeses. (But only, in their case also, as a happenstance: red wine was that which was leftover at the end of a meal when the cheese course came along.)
White wines pair better with (most) cheeses for a couple of solid reasons. First, the higher native acidity of white wines is a happier match for both the high salt and fat of most cheeses. Red wines just don’t have a lot of acidity – and that works against them when paired with cheese.
Second, white wines tend to sport a tad of residual sweetness. A bit of sweetness in a wine is a perfect match for foods with an equal amount of sweet to them (hello! cheese is made of milk).
Also, red wines have so much more to “lose” than whites do when eaten with cheese. What we want in a red wine – the rich flavor, the tannic grip, the length of a finish – are all lost (or at least very much compromised or diminished) in the presence of a fat-coating cheese. Simply put, most cheese blocks a red wine from being a red wine.
On the other hand, white wines don’t have as much to lose (they’re merely white, after all, not red). Plus they’re much better cleaner-uppers than reds.
The best red wine & cheese pairings (apart from the gimme of sweet fortified reds with blue cheese) are those that match a red – again, not terribly enormous reds – with very full-flavored cheeses (especially the “stinkies” – washed-rind cheeses – and firm, aged cheeses).
Here are a number of wine and cheese matches that work really well.
If you’re trying to find a match for a cheese or a wine that you don’t see on this list, seek rather to discover what style of cheese or wine each is and substitute.
For example, a Dutch Gouda is like a young French Mimolette is like a fresh Italian Asiago is like a Spanish Mahòn. Cheddar the world over is like Cheddar; chèvre, like chèvre; blues are blues; and Argentine Parmesan is like Parmigiano-Reggiano – well, just “like.”
With white wines:
- Blue (USA) with Semi-Dry Muscat, Riesling or Sparkling Wine
- Dry Monterey Jack (USA) with Medium-Bodied Chardonnay
- Emmenthaler (Switzerland) with Dry Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre, New Zealand)
- Fresh Goat with Dry Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma, Loire, New Zealand)
- Gorgonzola (Italy) with Vin Santo or Bual Madeira
- Havarti (Denmark) with Medium-dry German Riesling
- Mahon (Spain) with Semi-Sweet or Dry Madeira
- Manchego (Spain) with Penedès Chardonnay or Almansa Tinto (La Mancha)
- Morbier (France) with White Jura or Mâcon Blanc or Burgundy Rouge
- Mozzarella di Buffala (Italy) with Greco di Tufo or Lacryma Christi Bianco
- Pont l’Eveque (France) with Alsace Pinot Gris or Rhône Viognier
- Queso Fresco (USA) with Dry Riesling, Weiss
- Roquefort (France) with Sauternes or Barsac
- Stilton (England) with Late-Bottled Vintage Port or Sauternes
- Gruyère or Beaufort (France) with Chablis or Dry Mâcon Blanc
With red wines:
- Brie de Meaux (France) with Chinon, Beaujolais or Light French Red
- Camembert (France) with Bordeaux Supérieur or Dry Sparkling
- Camembert (USA) with Central Coast Pinot Noir or USA Sangiovese
- Cheddar (England) with Pommard or Volnay, Red Burgundy
- Gouda (Netherlands) with Mature Red Burgundy or American Pinot Noir
- Pecorino (Italy) with Rosso Piceno
- Taleggio (Italy) withTaurasi, Barolo, Aged Salice Salentino
- Parmigiano-Reggiano with Amarone della Valpolicella
- Epoisses (or Ami de Chambertin) with cru Bourgogne Rouge
- Appenzeller (Switzerland) with Valpolicella, Bardolino or Dry Red Ripasso
- Cheddar (England) with Pommard or Volnay, Red Burgundy