The ABC’s of Wine and Cheese

The most beloved culinary duo in the world is undoubtedly wine with cheese. It’s easy to understand why:  in most cases, wine and cheese bring out the best in each other!

As you probably know, cheese is mostly fat and protein (sorry, dieters!!).  The fat content in cheese will smooth out the acid taste in any wine, making it seem smoother and rounder.  The proteins as well as the fat in cheese smoothes out the tannins in wine, making wines taste velvety and soft.  As for the wine, wine is mostly alcohol and water, with a multitude of tastes and flavors, including acids and tannin.  Acid and tannins cleanse your palate, bringing out the full flavor of the cheese.  It’s a match made in heaven!

The Bubbly Professor’s Rules for Wine and Cheese

While wine and cheese are made for each other, there is such diversity in both worlds that some rules must apply. Follow these rules to ensure a perfect match!

1. Pair soft cheeses with high acid wines.  Soft cheeses like Brie, Camembert, and Ricotta, remain soft by retaining most of their moisture, or whey. The curds are usually gathered, placed in molds, and left to age in humid atmospheres from a few days to a few weeks, and are most flavorful when eaten at room temperature.  Softer cheeses coat the mouth and may block many of wine’s more subtle flavors.  A high-acid wine will cut through the texture of soft cheeses, and makes a great combination.

  • The Perfect Match for Soft Cheeses:  High-acid White Wines such as Chardonnay, White Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, or Pinot Gris, Sparkling Wines, or High-Acid fruity reds such as Barbera, Pinot Noir, or Beaujolais.

2.  Pair goat cheeses and brine cheeses with the highest acid white wine you can find!  Goat Cheeses, such as Chevre, Montrachet, and Vacherin, often have a delicious, sharp, tangy flavor.  Likewise, Brine cheeses, such as Feta, can have a sharp acidic flavor, as well as a salty taste.  Both of these factors (salt and acid) call for a high-acid wine.  The tang of the cheese will make a wine that is very high acid taste much smoother.  This can bring a sharp wine into perfect balance, but by the same token can make a moderate or low-acid wine taste flat and flabby.  Salt and acid is a great match, while salt and tannin can clash big time. This rule is a deal breaker…don’t break it!

  •  The Perfect Match for Goat Cheeses:Sauvignon Blanc, White Bordeaux, Riesling or other high-acid white wines.    

  3.  Pair semi-firm cheeses with full-bodied whites or light-bodied reds.  The category of Semi-firm cheeses includes Havarti, Monterey Jack, Muenster, and GoudaThese cheeses are aged for a short time in a damp environment, drying them slightly and leaving them with a mild, sometimes nutty, flavor.  The mild flavors of these cheeses means there is little chance of a flavor clash, so semi-firm cheeses go well with many wines.  A full-bodied, full-flavored white is a great match, cleansing the palate with its acidity and adding its own flavors to the mix.  If you would like to pair these cheeses with a red wine, make it a fruity, light-bodied red so the wine does not overpower the flavor of the cheese.  

  • The Perfect Match for Semi-Firm Cheeses:  Full bodied whites such as Chardonnay, some versions of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris.  The best red matches include Barbera, Dolcetto, Merlot, Beaujolais, or Pinot Noir.

4.  Pair firm cheeses with fruity, full-bodied white wines.  Firm cheeses include Swiss, Emmentaler, Gruyere, Manchego, and Jarlsberg. These cheeses are aged anywhere from2 to 18 months. Aging both reduces moisture content and increases the rich, nutty flavors so beloved in these cheeses. Usually, the most flavorful and sharp cheeses are aged the longest.  These cheeses, because of their sharp, strong flavor, pair well with white wines with fruity, even sweet flavors, and fuller-bodied wines.  These cheeses will make red wines taste very smooth and velvety, but the flavor of a red wine will overpower the nutty or smoky flavors of the cheese.

  • The Perfect Match for Firm Cheeses:  Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, Fume Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Albarino, White Rioja, White Bordeaux, Alsatian Whites…any full bodied white is worth a try!

 5.  Pair Cheddar Cheeses with rich red wines. A cheese originally from Great Britain, Cheddar is now made all over the world. In the U.S., three general types of Cheddar are produced — Mild Cheddar, usually aged one to three months; Medium Cheddar, generally aged for three to six months; and Aged Cheddar, typically aged six months or more. Cheddar is one of the most popular table cheeses in the world, and is used for a wide range of purposes.  Cheddar’s distinctive flavor pairs wonderfully with rich red wines.  If your rich red wine has fruit flavors, spicy flavors, and soft tannins, so much the better!

  • The Perfect Match for Cheddar Cheeses: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, RedBordeaux,Rhone Reds, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, or Shiraz.

 6.  Pair Colby Cheese with fruity red wines.  Named after Colby Wisconsin, the town of its origin, Colby is now primarily made inNew   Zealand. This moist cheese lacks the sharpness of cheddar and needs a milder companion.

  • The Perfect Match for Colby Cheeses:  Fruity Reds such as Barbera, Dolcetto,Beaujolais or Pinot Noir.

  7. Pair Provolone or Mozzarella with full-flavored reds.  Provolone and Mozzarella are supple and pliable with a great “toothsome” texture.  The flavor of both is mild, nutty, and delicate, yet they can stand up to full-flavored red wines.  These cheeses for a great basis for a cheese and red wine match, especially if one wants the wine to shine.  The cheese’s firm texture allows it to stand up to the tannin and acidity of a red wine, while its delicate flavors will allow the flavors of the wine to stand out.

  • The Perfect Match for Mozzarella and Provolone: Chianti, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah, Tempranillo, Red Rioja, Red Bordeaux, Rhone Reds, or Cabernet Franc.

8. For a surprisingly good match, pair extra firm cheeses like Parmesan and Romano with crisp white wines.   Extra Firm Cheeses like Parmesan and Romano have the least residual moisture of any fresh cheese. A couple days after they are placed into molds, they are salted in brine, and left to mature for 2 to 7 years. Not coincidentally, extra firm cheeses have a sharp, salty flavor. For a surprising treat, pair salty, crumbly Parmesan or Romano with a high acid white wine.  Make it a sparkling Prosecco and feel the fireworks go off in your mouth!  This style of pairing perks up the flavor of the cheese and accentuates the salty “grano” in extra firm cheeses.  

  • The Perfect White Wine Match for Parmesan and Romano: Prosecco!  You will love it!  Also try any fruity, acidic white wine.  Italy makes lots of them, such as Fiano, Gavi, Trebbiano, Orvieto, Vernaccia, Vermentino, and Soave…they would all be great!

 9. Try the traditional match and pair extra firm cheeses like Parmesan and Romano with robust red wines. As long as you watch the tannin level, a full-flavored red wine is a great match for the full flavor and heavy texture of Parmesan and Romano Cheeses.  The firm fats and protein in the cheese will smooth out any rough edges, and you will have a classic, heart-warming taste combination. 

  • The Perfect Red Wine Match for Parmesan and Romano: Chianti, Sangiovese, Valpolicella, Barbaresco, and any other medium to full bodied, full-flavored red wine from Italy.  For a cross-cultural match, try Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet, or Shiraz.

 10. For a study in contrasts, pair Roquefort, Stilton, or other Blue Cheeses with sweet, full-flavored wines.  Pairing sweet, flavorful wines with salty, savory blue cheese is the food and wine worlds “picture perfect” example of pairing wine and food based on a contrast of tastes and flavors.  As an added bonus, these pairings emphasize the flavor of its opposite, and can sometimes result in what I call “synergy”, or the sum of the whole being more than its component parts. (Translation:  new, added flavor layers.)

  • The Perfect Sweet Wine Match for Blue Cheeses: Sweet, full-flavored wines such as Sauternes, Ruby Port, Sweet Muscats, Vintage Port, or Late Harvest Zinfandel.

 11. On a night when full-bodied, full-flavored wrestling is on the menu, pair Roquefort, Stilton, or other Blue Cheeses with fruity, spicy, red Wines.  This seems to make a little more sense…and blue cheeses have a wonderful flavor affinity for fruity red wines.  The fruit flavor of the wine is a counterpoint to the pungency of the cheese, and earthy flavors abound!  For an added layer of pairing pleasure, throw some walnuts into the mix.

  • The Perfect Red Wine Match for Blue Cheeses:  Zinfandel, Shiraz, Malbec, Merlot, Carmenere, or Pinot Noir


12.  Match flavors.  Now things can start to get really interesting.  Be sure and abide by the rules above, but within the guidelines, pick a flavor in your cheese such as nutty, earthy, herbal, creamy, or smoky, and match it with a flavor in your wine.  This is known as a “flavor bridge” and it can be amazing!  In order for this to really work, you have to do some serious tasting…going by generalities just won’t cut it.  So, taste that cheese, and open a few bottles of wine.  Find a pair that matches in flavor, and prepare to be amazed! 

  • The Perfect Flavor Match:  You can have fun and find your own flavor matches, but here are some examples that might work: 
    • Herb-flavored Cheeses with Sauvignon Blanc
    • Smoked cheeses with Gewurztraminer
    • Nutty Cheeses with Chardonnay or Tawny Port
    • Stilton and Sauternes (earthy flavor match…yum…)

13.  A Word of Caution:  Beware of Bitter.  Some of my favorite cheeses, such as Stilton, Roquefort, and Gorgonzola, have a slight “undertaste” of bitterness to them.  This slight bitter taste makes a wonderful platform for an otherwise complex flavor profile…think of the bitter hit in espresso or the taste or field greens.  Bitterness, however, is a unique topic in food and wine pairing.  While most tastes (such as sweetness or acidity) in food and wine cancel each other out to a certain extent, bitter tastes in food and wine can emphasize each other, sometimes to detrimental effect.  If your cheese has a bit of bitter, make sure the wine you serve has little or no bitterness.  Wine generally gets bitter tastes from high levels of alcohol, oak, or tannin.  This factor will vary widely even among wines of the same grape and same region, so, unless the wine is known for this quality (such as Amarone), you will have to open a bottle to judge a wine’s bitterness.

  • The Perfect Match for Cheese with Bitter Tastes:  Keep it low alcohol, low oak, and low tannin.  Go for sweet or very fruity wines.

14.  Another Word of Caution:  Salt and Tannin can clash. One of the things that makes cheese so delightful is its saltiness, which lend a palate punch to anything it touches.  However, in some cases, salt in food can clash with tannin in wine, making a weird, metallic taste.  The fat content in cheese keeps this problem to a minimum, but it does happen sometimes.  If you are ever combining a rich, salty cheese with a red wine and something tastes kind of bitter, metallic, or just plain scary, it just might be the war of the salts and the tannins.  Switch to a lower-tannin wine, and all will be saved.

  • The Perfect Match for Salty Cheeses:  Keep it low tannin!  Any red wine has the potential to clash with salty cheeses, so make sure the tannins in your red wines are delicate, smooth, or mature.  Open up that bottle and have a taste…it’s the only way to really tell.

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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