Cheese and wine generally go together really well, but don’t just pick any old cheese and wine because some combinations are taste disasters. There’s an art to pairing them. Of course the final decisions on taste are going to be down to your own personal choice because taste is subjective, but knowing a few basics will help to get you started.
It’s a misconception that only red wines go with cheese – many whites work really well as do some rosés, champagnes, ports and dessert wines.
The idea with pairing is to match the flavour of the cheese with the flavour of the wine. They need to compliment each other, with neither one dominating the palette. Light tasting cheeses need a young wine and strong, mature cheeses will need a robust, full bodied wine.
It’s actually the components of the wine and cheese that are the reason that they do or don’t work well together. The important components are fat, acid, salt, alcohol, tannin and sugar. Acid, salt and sugar are common to both products. Wine additionally contains tannin and alcohol, and cheese contains fat.
For the flavour combinations, salt and sugar always go well together. Salt suppresses bitterness and it balances sugar. Sweet wines therefore work with salty and pungent cheeses such a Danish Blue, Gorgonzola and Stilton so try Sauternes or port.
An acidic cheese such as goats cheese works well with an acidic wine. Acid also cleanses fat from the palate so acidic Chablis works well with fatty Brie or camembert. Brie and camembert are actually quite hard to match with wine because the tang of ammonia in the cheese often jars with the flavours in wine but an LBV port can also work nicely. Champagnes are another good choice for fatty cheeses. Both the acidity and the bubbles make it work.
As with acid and acid going together, slightly sweet wines also mix well with slightly sweet cheeses.
Tannin is a bitter tasting plant compound that gives red wine body and colour. High tannin wines and fatty cheese are a good combination in the mouth so try putting a Parmigiano-Reggiano with an Amarone or an Australian Cabernet with blue cheese. The fat from the cheese coats your mouth, preventing the tannin reacting with your saliva and this makes it nicer to drink.
As well as using the known components of cheese and wine to pair it, you can also try choosing products from the same area – the climate and soil type cause both to have a distinct flavour and they often go together well for this reason. “What grows together, goes together” often rings true. An example from Tuscany in Italy is their lovely firm ewe’s milk cheese, Pecorino Toscano, which work very well with the local Chianti.
There will be a lot of trial and error involved in coming up with amazing flavour combination but it is fun trying. Bear in mind that when choosing your cheese, there is great variance in flavour even if they are the same type of cheese or from the same area.
One of the most popular and common cheeses in the UK is cheddar – a hard cheese with a high fat content and a nutty flavour. Because it is popular with most people, it’s a good one to start with. A particularly tasty cheddar cheese is from Godminster Vintage. Try it with a Barossa Shiraz (red) and a Sauvignon Blanc (white) and see what you think. Keep notes of what you like and what you don’t, and gradually you will build up a list of winning combinations.
To get a good idea of cheese varieties and flavours, visit a good cheesemonger such as Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, London, where you will find knowledgeable staff who will let you sample the cheeses and talk you through the flavours.