There's a pretty great rule of thumb when it comes to pairing wine with cheese: stick with white wine. It's safer because whites have significantly lower levels of tannin, and they're often lighter in body, which complements rather than overwhelms the flavors in cheese.
But what if you prefer red wine? Luckily, rules about pairing wine and cheese are meant to be broken. Following are a few tips for choosing the best red for your wedge.This week, I called in for backup. I got a good friend on the phone who has worked in the wine business for nearly 10 years and teaches classes on pairing wine and food. I have my own opinions about which reds work best with cheese, but I needed information on what defines these wines from others, and how to choose them. Here are the key pointers when it comes to choosing reds that complement cheese:
Choose reds that are high in acidity.
White wines work so well with cheese because they've likely higher in acidity. You'll perceive acidity as a bright, mouthwatering sensation, and it can hit you at the start or the finish of a sip of wine. Now think of an unctuous, rich triple creme cheese. Pairing-wise, it's the lively acidity in a white wine that has the ability to cut through that cloying mouthfeel of the cheese. Thus, it follows that a red wine with a bright flavor profile can match the body of a rich, fatty cheese.
High-acid red wines tend to appear in high altitudes and cooler climates. Often, if you're looking for a high-acid red, you'll be better off asking for a wine from a specific region than for one made from a specific grape varietal. And sure, not all high-acid wines are from high elevations with cool climates, but this is a great general rule. Look for wines from the Val d'Aosta and Trentino regions of Italy, the Jura region of France, Austria, Switzerland, and the French Alps.
Choose reds that are lower in tannin.
Tannin in wine comes from contact with grape skins, seeds, and stems. Red wine is red precisely because of the contact of the grape skins with the grape juice. (All grape juice is clear to begin with, after all.) You'll also find tannin in wines that have spent significant time aging in wood barrels. White wine typically doesn't have much tannin because whites don't macerate with skins and many whites age in stainless steel.
Tannin in wine lends a mouth-drying feeling, almost like drinking over-steeped black tea, and it can produces a metallic flavor when met with the fat in cheese. Look for "soft tannin" wines with less obviously tannic notes. They'll work much more harmoniously with cheese, as they won't leave you with a finish can ultimately overpower each element in the pairing.
It's difficult to know if a wine will be tannic, even if you know of its origins and varietal. Sometimes it's best to ask your wine retailer for input on a wine's level of tannin. Knowing whether or not the wine has been aged in oak can help, though, as oak-aging increases tannin levels.
Choose reds that are fruity in flavor.
Fruity reds offer a sensation of sweetness, which can either offset a salty cheese, or complement a creamy cheese that has perceivable notes of sweetness. You can even go so far as to choose reds that are juicy or jammy, words often considered negative descriptors for wine. Think of how tasty grapes are with most cheese. Now imagine a fruit-forward wine—just another incarnation of grapes, really—with cheese. The dots aren't that difficult to connect. Gamay (the grape that most Beaujolais is made from) is great, because it's fruity, but light in body. Other great varietals: Grenache (which you'll find in Côtes du Rhône wines) and Pinot Noir.
Even better is a red wine with residual sugar, like Lambrusco (which is also great because of the bubbles, which is always a nice partner for cheese) or Cerdon.
Choose reds that are lower in alcohol.
Look at the alcohol content of a wine before you buy it for cheese. Alcohol in wine can electrify the acidity in cheese, making it taste spicy when it's not. High alcohol wines tend to fight with cheese, leaving an acrid aftertaste and a most displeasing finish. Look for wines that are lower than 13.5% in alcohol content.
Choose reds that are older.
Wines lose their tannic structure over time. If you like full-bodied wines or varietals that tend to have an imposing flavor profile, try finding one of the same style but that's from an older vintage. Young Riojas, for example, are generally quite full in body, but older Riojas have mellowed significantly. Same for Cabernet Sauvignon. Since the Cabernet grape tends to have thicker skin (read: higher in tannin), generally do better in warm climates (read: lower in acidity), and are higher in alcohol content, they're not typically great go-to's for cheese. But if you find one that's from an older vintage, you'll probably be in the clear. Even just five years of age on a wine can soften the tannins.
Of course, sometimes the best pairings happen when you break the rules, or when you don't expect to find a perfect match. Don't overthink your beverage choice with your cheese; it needn't be complicated. Remember that sometimes all that matters is that you really like both the wine and the cheese from the get-go, and so pairing them together only seems natural, simply on the basis that you like each element alone.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: The Cheesemonger: The Cheesemonger Meets the Winemonger: A Cheese and Wine Pairing Primer
(Image: Natalia Klenova/Shutterstock)