Salmon and dill; pizza and beer; sushi and green tea; Laurel and Hardy: what do these all have in common? They are all perfect matches, perfect pairings. Well, in the Western culinary world, almost nothing pairs quite as divinely as wine and cheese. There is just something about the sharp, tangy complexity of each, the smooth, luscious richness, that draws wine and cheese together like Romeo and Juliet. But unlike the fate of those two lovers, pairing wine and cheese ends happily.
I believe that you could pair any cheese with any wine (with one or two extreme exceptions), and end up with something nice. But learning how to pair the right cheese with the right wine can elevate the experience to an Olympic experience. It is the difference between a nice, catchy pop song, and one of Bach’s masterpieces. Learning how to pair the two — and why — can heighten your enjoyment of one of life’s great pleasures, and one of the strong bonds of Western civilization.
The first rule of paring any food and drinks is to experiment. If you have the time and the money, it is a good idea to taste different sorts of cheeses, and try out different wines with them. But one big problem with pairing wine and cheese, is that the subjects of both wine and cheese are extensive and complex. Even attempting to categorize all wine and cheese could fill an entire book. So the best way to introduce this topic is probably to sort wine and cheese into some basic categories.
But first, it is important to recognize and understand the two prevailing philosophies of pairing wine with any sort of food. The first philosophy states that like compliments like. In other words, a wine and a food that have similar flavor profiles and flavor aspects, will join each other harmoniously to produce a rich, consistent experience. The other view says that opposites attract. That is to say, contrasting flavors offset each other to produce a harmonious and complex balance. When it comes to wine and cheese, I personally feel that both philosophies work well. However, I believe that it takes a more experienced palate to really appreciate opposites, especially with very complex or strong-flavored cheeses. Nevertheless, there are some very classic pairings which we can identify.
There are five general categories of cheese. These classes are based on how the cheese are made, which in turn relates to their general texture and flavor profile. Each category of cheese has a set of wines that generally match the profile.
1. Fresh Cheese. Fresh cheese is made directly from milk by adding bacteria to milk curds. These cheese have a fresh, dairy, sometimes barnyard flavor. They are not aged, have no rind, and do not have strong or complex flavors. They are light and pure in flavor, and often creamy or simply firm in texture. They include Goat Cheese, Ricotta, Mascarpone, Fromage Blanc, and others.
Fresh cheeses often go well with dry white wines, or light red wines. Examples of white wine parings include Pinot Grigiot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc. A red wine that might go well with fresh cheese is Beaujolais.
2. Soft Cheese. Sometimes also called bloomy, these cheeses are rich but relatively mild. They usually have a rind, but it is thin and white, with a pleasant mold flavor, and is edible. These cheese are sometimes liquid-soft in the center, and are meant to be served at room temperature. Examples are Brie, Camembert, and Robiola.
Soft cheeses are best paired with smooth, buttery white wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, or sparkling white wines, such as Brut Champagne or Cava.
3. Semi-Soft Cheese. These cheeses often have no rind, are mild, and melt smoothly and evenly. They include Monterey Jack, Havarti, and even some Bleu Cheeses, even ones with a very strong flavor and full of mold, such as Gorgonzola and Stilton. This category is the most difficult to pair because, although they share the semi-soft texture, their flavors range from mild or herbed (Havarti), to pungent, strong, and complex (Stilton).
The milder semi-soft cheeses can be paired with smooth white wines, like Chardonnay, while the strong-flavored, moldy cheeses are often paired well with sweeter wines, such as aged Port, Sauterne, and Riesling.
4. Firm Cheese. The firm cheeses generally do not have rinds, and are salty in flavor, with medium umami elements. They include Swiss Cheese, Cheddar, Gruyère, and Gouda.
These are the cheeses that begin to pair well with red wines. The tannic and full-bodied flavors of red wines pair well with the umami flavor of these cheeses.
Some good wines to pair with these cheeses include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
5. Hard Cheese. Hard cheeses are usually aged, sometimes for long periods of time. They are best served at room temperature. These cheeses have tangy, salty flavors, with very strong umami elements. They include Parmesan, Pecorino, Romano, and Asiago.
Hard cheeses come full circle in that they can pair with red or white whines. They are usually excellent with Chianti, Valpolicella, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Of course, the broad range of flavors in cheese, red wine, and white wine, means that there are many more possible delicious pairings for all sorts of cheese and wines. It should be emphasized that experimentation is often the best way to discover gastronomical delights. Try out as many cheeses and wines as you can, with one another, and see which ones create a full, broad, delicious flavors. When you find matches, write them down and try them again.
Wine and cheese tend to go so well together because they both exude rich, complex flavors with aspects like umami and tannins, aspects that activate all of the taste buds, and open them to receiving the largest profile of flavors possible. As I have argued before, the different phytochemicals in plants that make alcohol, give each type of alcohol a particular psychological, mental, and emotional effect to the drinker. Likewise, the many different types of bacteria that create cheese also produce a different internal reaction to each type of cheese — at least that is my theory. And when wine and cheese combine in just the right combination, they activate the spiritual, intellectual, and interpersonal parts of people. Wine and cheese elevate us to a higher plane, and allow us to interact with one another in a slightly more divine way. And for that reason, they are essential parts of culinary joy and love.