Wine and Cheese: Getting it Right
By John Szabo MS
Few edibles share as many similarities as wine and cheese. Both were “invented” accidentally several thousand years ago, and people have not stopped trying to perfect them since. They’re both transformed from a relatively simple raw material (grape juice and milk) into an astonishingly complex product. The production region greatly influences the final outcome, and both require no small measure of human skill to get it right.
However; although kindred in spirit, in reality, mixing wine and cheese often ends in disaster. So many wines crumple into a quivering heap before the fatty, salty, pungent profile of many cheeses. And, since proper cheese boards usually contain a range of cheeses from mild to stinky, goat to cow, there’s rarely a single type of wine that will work, err, across the board.
Following are a few guidelines to help you get the match right. I’ve sliced up the vast worlds of both cheese and wine into basic style categories and paired them up, so that no matter what cheese you’re dealing with, you’ll know what wine is at least in the right ballpark.
I’ve also done some hands-on experimentation with some of the fine cheeses made right here in Ontario wine country, courtesy of Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Prince Edward County and the Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan, Niagara. I’ve recommended local wines for each of their offerings. When in doubt, what grows together goes together.
Dial Up the Intensity
Remember that unpasteurized, artisanal, farmhouse cheeses have a much stronger flavour profile than pasteurized, supermarket cheeses, so you’re wine choice should also climb the scale of intensity. A young, mild, pasteurized Cheddar will be fine with an inexpensive, moderately complex, soft red, for example, but an unpasteurized, well-aged, crumbly, farmhouse Cheddar will crush all but the sturdiest of reds.
To Rind or Not to Rind?
Flavour intensity also depends on maturity: the older and riper (runnier) the cheese, the stinkier it is, and the more intense the flavour, especially of the rind. Some folks enjoy the pungent flavour of the rind, others not so much (even cheese experts are divided on whether to eat the rind or not on certain cheeses). So, if the match isn’t working, try cutting the rind off, which often clashes with wine more than the milder paste itself.
If You Serve Just One Wine
Most people intuitively associate red wine with cheese. But white wine, and particularly off-dry or medium sweet wines, are much more versatile. If you’re going with just one wine for a range of cheeses, stay safe with a late harvest Riesling or Vidal.
Matching up: The Generalities
Following are the basic types and cheeses with common examples, and the wine styles that work best:
Fresh: minimally-aged cheeses like cottage cheese, ricotta, fromage blanc, fromage frais, or queso fresco are mild in flavour. They’ll work, or at least not clash, with most wines. Your best bets are lightweight, crisp and stony whites or light-bodied, bright and zesty, low-tannin reds.
Goat’s milk: The tangy acidity of goat’s milk cheeses like Srottin de Chavignol, St Maure, Chabichou, or anything called “Chèvre” calls for a wine with equally vibrant acidity. Best bets: lightweight, crisp and stony whites.
- Fifth Town’s creamy Plain Jane Chèvre with Lacey Estates 2011 Gewurztraminer Reserve.
Soft, bloomy rind: ripened cheeses like Camembert, Brie, Explorateur, Chaource are sprayed or dusted with a (good type of) mold and left to ripen. They come in varying degrees of richness, usually designated as single, double or triple-cream. The richer the cheese, the more full-bodied should be the wine. Brie and Camembert work well with soft, round, slightly buttery Chardonnay and dry fruity rosés. Light, soft, fruity reds are also generally simpatico.
- Upper Canada’s Comfort Cream: a bloomy rind cheese made in a camembert style, aged for 6 weeks with Hidden Bench’s Estate 2011 Pinot Noir, Beamsville Bench.
- Upper Canada’s Smoked Comfort Cream: smoked over maple wood, aged for 3 weeks, with Le Clos Jordanne’s 2012 Claystone Terrace Chardonnay, or Cave Spring Cellars 2012 Gewurztraminer.
- Fifth Town Artisan Cheese’s Operetta: a deliciously luscious, soft ripened, bloomy rind goat milk cheese, in need of an equally rich and creamy oak-aged chardonnay. This works with Huff Estates 2012 South Bay Chardonnay or Exultet’s 2012 “The Blessed” Chardonnay, both from Prince Edward County. In a pinch, Norm Hardie’s 2012 County Pinot will do justice.
- Fifth Town’s Nettles Gone Wild: soft ripened goat’s milk cheese with nettles with Huff Estate’s 2012 dry cabernet franc rosé.
Soft, washed rind: washed-rind cheeses are regularly bathed with brine, beer, cider, wine, brandy, or oils during the ripening period, encouraging bacterial growth that allows the cheese to ripen from the outside in. With milder variations like Vacherin Mont d’Or, Pont l’Évèque, Reblochon or Taleggio, pour full-bodied complex, spicy whites such as Gewürztraminer, richer Pinot Gris, or Viognier. Medium to full-bodied reds such as Merlot, or Shiraz/Syrah also work. The more pungent types like Epoisses, Münster, or Limberger will crush any unsuspecting, delicate wines, so try off-dry or semi-sweet late harvest wines. But when really ripe and stinky, switch to fine local spirits.
- Upper Canada’s Niagara Gold: a nutty washed rind cheese in the Trappiste style, aged three months, with Hidden Bench’s 2012 Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay.
Semi-soft: this category includes a wide variety ranging from mostly mild and nutty to occasionally more pungent and aromatic, such as Fontina, Havarti, Morbier, Jarslberg, Emmenthal, Monterey Jack, Port Salut, Oka, Gouda or Edam. The milder versions are fairly friendly to wine, and soft fruity reds provide a good match. Try Gamay, lightly oaked Merlot, Pinot Noir and similar. Medium-bodied, soft and fruity whites like low/no oak Chardonnay are another way to go.
- Upper Canada’s Nosey Goat Camelot: a semi-firm, versatile, goat’s milk washed rind cheese aged three months in a Trappist style with 2012 Cave Spring Estate Riesling, or Malivoire 2013 Moira Vineyard Pinot Noir Rosé.
Semi-hard/hard: cheeses like Manchego, Pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Crotonese, Gouda, Cheddar, Tomme, Raclette, Comté, Cantal, Provolone and Gruyere provide an opportunity to showcase some heavy hitting reds. The combination of moderate fat content, sharp, pungent flavour and crumbly texture calls for full-bodied, tannic reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. You’ll find that this type of cheese actually softens up tannic reds, creating a smoother, creamier texture – a win-win pairing.
- Fifth Town’s Unpasteurized Goat Milk Cheddar: (the current batch is three and a half years old), a tangy and firm, salty and pungent cheese in need of richness and density in the form of Norm Hardie’s 2012 County Chardonnay, or if you’ll accept a pairing from outside of the County, Ravine’s savoury and intense 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon from the St. David’s Bench.
Blue-veined: the intense saltiness and pungent flavours of blue cheese like Stilton, Roquefort, or Gorgonzola wreak havoc on dry whites and reds, but make a brilliant contrasting match with sweet wines. It’s time to bring out the ice wine, both white and red versions. The saltier and more intense the cheese, the sweeter the wine should be.
John Szabo is Canada’s first master sommelier and the author of Pairing Food and Wine For Dummies (Wiley, 2012), a partner/principal critic for WineAlign.com and a restaurant consultant based in Toronto.