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Pairing Cheese and Wine

Cheese and wine are both living foods that are made through fermentation processes. Both are ancient foods and classic partners whose flavors vary seasonally and change as they age. This makes the pairing of wine and cheese a delightful but sometimes challenging pursuit. The pleasure of eating a good cheese can be enhanced when it’s paired with an appropriate wine. There are few hard and fast rules, and experts concede that ultimately a perfect pairing is often a matter of personal preference.

Basic Guidelines

Creating contrasting or opposite flavors in a pairing is one approach. Salty cheeses and fruity wines can be great partners, keeping in mind to select similar strengths of each, such as a very salty cheese with a fruit-forward wine and a moderately salty, semi-hard cheese with a wine that has more subdued fruit.

Often, cheese and wine pairing is based on similarities rather than contrasts. Match the flavor and texture by pairing delicate cheeses with light wines, robust cheeses with full-bodied wines and hard, mature cheeses with older wines.

Keep in mind that cheese coats the mouth and can dull the nuances of a delicate or complex wine and exaggerate tannins. Creamy cheeses are better partners with lighter style wines having soft tannins and crisp flavors.

Following are some guidelines that help bring these two delicious foods together as satisfying companions.

  • Pair simple cheeses with light wines. Avoid overwhelming the young, mild cheeses with complex wines. Instead, choose wines that are light, crisp and mildly fruity like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, or fruity Rosé.
  • Pair mild, aged cheeses with older, milder wines. Cheese expert Laura Werlin notes in her book, The All American Cheese and Wine Book, that some cheeses and wines become rounded and mellow with age, allowing them to “find companionship because neither is interested in wrestling the other for attention.” Examples she cites are Aged Gouda and Syrah, and Cheddar and Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Pair strong, pungent cheeses with sweet wines. Cheeses with strong flavors can have textures that are smooth and buttery or crumbly and tangy. Match these full-flavored cheeses with a contrasting or sweet wine such as a Port or a late-harvest Riesling.
  • White wines are more cheese-friendly across the board than reds. Because white wines typically are acidic and fruity, they pair well with the saltiness in most cheeses. Red wines with juicy, soft fruit and acidity pair well with cheeses as long as the red wine is low in tannins. Werlin points out that cheese influences the flavor of wine much more than the reverse, and cheese can bring out or even create bitterness in wine. The main reason why white wines are more cheese-friendly is because white wines are not usually made with much oak, if any (except for some Chardonnays.) Red wines usually have oak, plus they have inherent tannins. That combination makes cheese and wine pairing more challenging, notes Werlin.
  • Dessert wines, which are sweet, pair well in contrast to the saltiness of cheese. The rich sweetness of dessert wines makes them broadly compatible with pungent creamy cheeses and earthy, extra-strong hard cheeses. Blue cheese usually goes well with dessert wines. Werlin notes that contrasting pairings should be “equal and opposite.” That is, pair a mildly salty cheese with a mildly sweet wine and a highly salty cheese with a much sweeter-style wine.