First of all, you have to know what to look for. Or rather, what to taste.
In a great pairing, you'll find that the cheese elevates the wine, and vice versa. Their collision should bring out new intricacies and nuances in each other. And in the best pairings of all, you'll find truth in a magical equation, that 1 + 1 actually equals 3. Look for a third, (likable) flavor that arises seemingly out of nowhere. It's your most obvious clue to a successful, compatible marriage of two different elements.
Evaluate the four major components of wine: tannin, alcohol, acidity, and sugar, and do your best to balance them with the intensity of the cheese you'd like to pair it with. Consider:
- Mouthfeel: How do the wine and cheese harmonize in your mouth? Perhaps the creaminess of an oaky white works well with an equally creamy cheese? An austere, not-too-fruity red may work nicely with a lean, not-too-salty mountain cheese.
- Weight: Goat cheeses, as we've learned, have a pleasant lightness to them, while sheep milk cheeses carry a bit more heft because they have a higher fat content. Consider how bold a statement the cheese makes on its own and balance that with an appropriate alcohol level in the wine.
- Acidity: Fresh cheeses and younger wines tend to have more acidity, just by nature of their freshness, and so they make good friends. Aged cheese and older wines have mellowed, and will tend to harmonize more easily with each other. Imagine the unlikely marriage between a fresh mozzarella and a Barolo from the 80's. You want neither element to overpower the other.
FIND HARMONY IN OPPOSITION
Opposites attract. Think about the trascendent effect of the salty/sweet combination of salted caramel or a Snickers bar. We look to this same tenet of pairing when constructing a wine and cheese match, too. Try:
- Stinky washed rind cheeses like Taleggio or the more local Grayson from Meadowcreek Dairy with off-dry whites like a German Riesling. A Kabinett or Spatlese would be your best choices.
- Strong, peppery blues with sweet dessert wines. It's the classic example of opposites attract.
Mint & chocolate, potatoes & rosemary, tomatoes & basil... these are all traditional food pairings. In the same way that we often draw upon these go-to combinations, we have some standby wine and cheese pairings, as well.
- Goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc
- Uber-rich triple cremes like Pierre Robert or Brillat Savarin with sparkling wine or Champagne. Part of the reason why these two marry so well together is because they have polar opposite textures. (Think about the opposites attract concept when considering mouthfeel.) The light bubbles in the wine work to wash away the richness of the cheese.
- Port and cheddar. But make sure it's a traditional, preferably cloth-bound English or English-style cheddar.
What grows together goes together. It's not a bad idea to take a look at pairings that have historical roots. Some great ones to stand by:
- Parmigiano Reggiano and Lambrusco, both from Emilia-Romania. Just try it. Trust us.
- Funky Spanish sheep milk cheeses like Spain's Queso de la Serena and sherry. As a sidenote, don't underestimate the pairing ability of sherry. Its savory, nutty quality works wonders with other nutty cheeses. Try it with Mahon, Ossau Iraty, or a mountain cheese like Gruyere.
- Sancerre and lightly aged goat cheeses like Chevrot or Chabichou du Poitou from the Loire Valley. Or if you want a regional riff, try an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from California and the phenomenal French-style goat cheeses like Coupole or Bonne Bouche from Vermont Butter and Cheese.
- Epoisses and Burgundy. Burgundian monks did it, why not you?
- Comte or Vacherin Mont D'Or with oxidized whites from the same region, the Jura.
STICK WITH WHITES
Tannins that inherently live in most red wines combat the natural protein living in cheese, resulting in a match that's too often either bitter, astringent, or, at the very least, unpleasant. Red wines are also generally lower in acidity, which makes them harder to pair. Acidity (which refers to the bright, refreshing quality in a wine) balances the fat in cheese, so reach for a white if you're unfamiliar with the red you're considering.
We hope this gets you started! What are your favorite pairings?