Exceptional wine and great cheese is one of those great combinations that makes life worth living. But that doesn’t mean wine and cheese are always the most comfortable of companions.
The two are so closely associated that you might think that pretty much any old cheese will politely pair up with almost any wine, but the truth is somewhat different.
Cheese is invariably high in fat and this tends to coat the mouth, forming a barrier between the wine and your tastebuds. Cheese can also be really pungent, seriously salty bracingly acidic and generally too aggressive to snuggle up closely to even the most robust wines.
But having said that…when the combination works and the right cheese comes together in perfect harmony with the right wine, it’s easy to see what the fuss is about.
Simple guidelines for cheese and wine matching
A good cheese plate should contain something hard, something soft and something blue. But the chances of finding a single wine that will match all three is about as likely as finding a winemaker who doesn’t drink.
You might want to consider serving just a single, perfect cheese with one matching wine. What your cheese platter lacks in variety it will certainly make up in synergy.
While most people are enjoying reds by the time the cheese is served, don’t discount the possibility of matching white wines with cheese. Sauvignon Blanc and goat’s cheese is one of the classic combinations because the high acidity in both magically balances out when they meet.
Or Chardonnay and soft-rind white mould cheese – the creaminess of the cheese is complemented by the stonefruit and citrus characters and almost creamy vanillin character of the wine. Gruyere and Edam, with their nutty sweetness, pair will with aromatic white wines like Gewurtztraminer, Moscato or Viognier.
Hard aged cheese
Bitey, hard mature cheeses such as parmesan, Comté, aged Gruyere, Gouda, Pecorino and Manchego give you the best of both worlds – they work well with full-bodied whites and tannic reds. Whether you choose a flavoursome Chardonnay, sweet Riesling, luscious Viognier or juicy Pinot Noir, Merlot or Grenache, you’ll find an easy harmony between the cheese and wine.
Blue Cheese Wine Matching
Blue cheeses are often more assertive in flavour with a strong, tangy palate that calls for suitable wine match. When it comes to blue, we suggest instead of white and red, go for gold. Sweet dessert wines and rich fortified wines like port, Muscat and Tokay make the perfect partner for pungent blue cheeses.
The sweetness acts as a perfect balance to the strong flavours of the cheese. If you really would prefer a white wine with blue cheese, look for something with plenty of sweet fruit (late harvest Riesling, Gewurztraminer) to help counteract the tangy cheese. Red wine isn’t a great match with blue cheese – the acidity and tang of the cheese tends to flatten the fruit flavours of the wine enhancing the tannins and acids, making the reds taste flat and characterless. Better to save the reds for after you’ve finished the blue cheese!
Cheddar cheese wine matches
Cheddar is the classic of the cheese world. Traditional, reliable and much loved, cheddar differs from all other cheeses because it includes a step actually called ‘Cheddaring’, where acid develops in the curds. It’s the process that gives cheddar cheese its distinctive tanginess and chalky, melt-in-the-mouth texture. But the acidity should always be tempered by mouthfilling, creamy complexity. (If all you’re getting from a mouthful of cheddar is a sharp acidic tang with no corresponding creaminess, you’re probably eating an inferior example.)
Because of its acidity, cheddar is one cheese you can enjoy with a robust red. Preferably one with a few years’ age so that the tannins have softened. The smoothness of the wine works well to ameliorate the tanginess of the cheese. Cheddar also works well with fuller-bodied white wines such as buttery Chardonnay, textured Viognier or aged Hunter Valley Semillon.
Watch those tannic reds
It’s the tannin in red wines that can cause the most violent clashes when it comes to matching with cheese. Highly salted cheeses are best avoided because salt just emphasises the natural bitterness of grape tannins. Because tannins soften with age, a reasonably mature red will make a better match than a big, young blockbuster.
Having said that, remember that the characters of a mature red are subtler and more subdued than younger reds, so don’t go for a brute of a cheese that will overpower the wine and destroy all that good work in the cellar.
White mould cheese is highly popular – just think of the myriad rounds (and triangles) of Brie and Camembert on display in any supermarket or delicatessen.
This style of cheese matures from the outside in, covered by a surface bloom of white mould, a member of the penicillin family. Traditionally, the mould spores are present in the air around the cheese, and the mould establishes itself naturally on the surface of the cheese. All French white mould cheeses are formed this way. (For some Australian examples, mould spores are sprayed onto the outside of the cheese.) Pair Camembert and Brie with generous white wines like Chardonnay, Arneis, Viognier, or even more aromatic styles like Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer or Marsanne
And because you paid attention in biology class you’ll know that mould is a living organism (well done, top marks!). As the roots grow into the cheese the mould breaks down fats and proteins to change the texture of the cheese, making it soft and runny. However, some commercial white mould cheese are made in a manner that ‘stabilises’ the mould, so the cheese develops a uniform texture and cannot soften any further with ripening. Make sure you choose high quality, artisanal, small-batch white mould cheeses and you’re more likely to get a product with character and soft texture. That’s a golden rule to follow when buying any cheese – wherever possible choose traditional styles (French) or locally handmade cheeses from boutique cheesemakers. Good cheesemongers are worth their weight in curds!
Washed rind cheese and wine matching
Washed rind cheeses can prove challenging to match with wines, as the bacteria that forms the distinctive pink crust on the outside of the cheese, along with its pungent aromas, can easily overpower the wrong wine choice. Pick a full-bodied, rich, ripe white wine like a warm-climate Chardonnay (McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley), or if you prefer red, choose lighter-boded, highly aromatic styles like Pinot Noir, Tempranillo or Sangiovese. Heavier reds can tend to taste metallic and flat alongside a stinky, ripe cheese. Sweet wines such as Botrytis Riesling or Sauternes make a superb match for strongly flavoured, mature soft cheeses. The sweetness in the wine helps cut through the creamy pungency of the cheese, readying the palate for another bite.
When it comes to wine and cheese matching, the best way to discover what works best is to experiment time and time again to find your perfect matches.