Wine and cheese: a Cheesemonger’s guide to pairings

Wine and Cheese have a lot in common. At their most basic we’re talking about the controlled spoilage of grape juice versus the controlled spoilage of milk! Who’s hungry!?

But if you zoom out, you have two very broad categories of products that have vast interpretations of style determined by varied production methods; and when done well, have the ability to showcase the place in which they come from. You may have heard the term terroir (a sense of place) in reference to wine, but it applies to cheese too. They both can have national, geographical and seasonal identities.

That’s all well and good – but how do you know where to begin when pairing them? The goal: for the sum of the two parts to be greater than when they are on their own. We want funny maths, 1 plus 1 equals 3. It’s tricky business for sure, and always worth noting that everyone’s palates are different. But, never fear! There are a few core pillars that can lay the foundation for pairing perfection.

In Pursuit of Balance

Balance is everything in food and wine pairing. Namely from a strength perspective: you don’t want one to overpower the other. When you combine both wine and cheese in your mouth, then swallow, note for how long you continue to taste both elements. If one vanishes, it’s likely been overpowered. Think: delicate with delicate, and bold with bold.

Balancing fat & acid is hugely important. Cheese has fat, some more than others, and it coats and tires your palate. Fattier cheeses require fresher wines – the acidity breaks up the fat, taking it down with the wine and leaving your palate fresh,  salivating, and ready for your next bite. Getting this balance right often creates a truly pleasurable textural experience.

PRO-TIP: If you’re charged with bringing wine to a cheese party, sparkling wines are a sure thing! Fizz has high acid to pair with a wide variety of cheese styles and the effervescence goes a long way to refreshing your palate, especially with creamy soft cheese.
Try Molmenti & Celot Extra Dry Prosecco for a safe and great value choice!

When many people think of classic wine and cheese pairings, they often look immediately to red wine. Not me. Red wine can be tricky due to the presence of tannins. This is the compound found in red wines that dries out your palate and leaves you with that scratchy cat-tongue like sensation. Tannin is a compound that binds to protein, and there’s actually a lot of protein in your saliva. So upon drinking the wine, the tannin grabs all your lubrication leaving you with a dry mouth. At which point, you want to avoid overly mouldy cheeses (Ex: Camembert), you’d be doubling down on earthiness and bitterness. So we’d look to balance the tannins from say Musso’s Langhe Nebbiolo with a rich cheese that is not mould-ripened (Ex: Pecorino). By harmonising with the tannins your palate is left intact and ready for more.

Here’s a simple chart to understand the hierarchy of Fat & Protein by animal milk type:

credit: Dan Belmont

What grows together, goes together

While apparently, this is often overlooked! Do as the locals do! Both wine and cheese have long histories, intrinsically tied to a place and its people. A French cheese is likely to be successful when paired with a French wine. That being said, you can’t forget balance (I.e. a light dry French white wine would still be overpowered by a mature French Cantal), but geographical pairings are a really strong place to start.

You can of course extrapolate this beyond geo-political borders! A British-made Camembert style is likely to pair well with a fruity French Champagne and, conversely, you can try a classic French Langres (from Champagne) with an English Sparkling wine like Tickerage’s Classic Cuvée.

Know your roots and go further afield. Dorstone is an English goat’s milk cheese modelled after a classic Loire Valley style. You may know that white wines from the Loire are often made with Chenin Blanc – you can therefore pair Dorstone with a Remhootge’s First Light, a South African Chenin Blanc. The pairing’s essence still has its historical roots in the Loire Valley.

Opposites Attract

It’s natural to think of complimenting flavours when creating a pairing, but lest we forget the wise words of 80s pop icon Paula Abdul –

“It ain’t fiction, just a natural fact
We come together ‘cuz opposites attract”

Fruity & Funky – There’s a category of cheeses classified by their production method, called ‘washed rind cheeses” – they’re the stinky, feety, meaty, funkadelic cheeses. Classic examples include Taleggio, Epoisses, and Munster. I spent many years behind the cheese counter, and admittedly avoided Munster at all costs. It’s just too much funk. It wasn’t until I travelled to Alsace where I unlocked the key to this otherwise unapproachable fromage. Enter: Gewürztraminer. This grape can also be polarising with its perfumed bouquet, and sweet tropical fruits. When combined with the infamous cheese – pure magic. Look for the subtle residual sugar in off-dry styles, such as Channing Daughters Gewurtztraminer Pet Nat, to balance these cheeses.

Sweet & Salty – This contrast is exciting for your palate. Think about the dark chocolate with fleur de sed – you’re enjoying intense chocolatey bliss and then…pop!, you find a salt crystal. So fun. Blue cheeses are often quite salty compared to other cheese styles, and have the added spicy note from the mould, another contrasting lover of sweetness. For true decadence and delight, end your meal with Colston Bassett Stilton alongside Kikelet Tokaji (3 puttonyos).

Cheddar is better

While that’s largely debatable, it is Britain’s most popular cheese style and it accounts for over half of all UK cheese sales. We would therefore be remiss to not offer a few of our top selections for this seminal British gem.

Mild Cheddar – look to recreate the classic ploughman’s lunch: with the wine bringing the fruit and acid instead of a chutney. Grape varieties with orchard and tree fruit notes and great acidity are ideal go-tos. Try Savaterre Estate Chardonnay – cheddar has an affinity for oak flavours.

Mature Cheddar – these aged cheeses develop nutty, meaty, savoury notes that welcome full-bodied red wines like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Go bold with the Vintage Double Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon 2013.

Smoked Cheddar – pairing wine with smoked foods is always tricky, so you want wine with a lot of flavour and personality to stand up to the wood burning fireplace notes. I recommend Cabernet Franc – dark cherry notes, capsicum and savoury minerality play well. Try Château de Minière’s Old Vine Cab Franc.

The potential is endless

The worlds of wine and cheese are so vast, you’ll never be able to try them all. Just have fun with it! With the tricks and tips outlined above you’ll be well on your way to delighting taste buds with incredible combinations.

Take comfort in the fact that these are more guidelines than hard and fast rules. And at the end of the day, rules are meant to be broken.

Go forth and spread the good curd word!

This is a guest-post by Dan Belmont

Dan is a London-based certified American Wine Expert and holds the Level-3 certification in Wines & Spirits from the WSET. He led the education departments of NYC’s famed Murray’s Cheese, the largest artisan cheese retailer in the US, and Bedales of Borough, a trio of wine bars based in London’s historic markets. Dan is the Wine Ambassador for Liebherr UK, and proudly supports a variety of international trade associations and producers as a presenter, educator & judge.
Armed with 10+ years of industry experience (much of which was spent specifically pairing wine and food), Dan operates in constant awe of the good people who dedicate themselves to the odyssey that is producing good wine.