So, when it comes to cheese, which is it: red wine or white? I think many folks would be surprised (shocked?) to discover that in almost every case white wine is the better choice. A white wine can be found to go with virtually any cheese, but the same can not be said for red wine. In fact a recent controlled experiment conducted by a graduate student at the University of California at Davis concluded that cheese actually dulled the taste of red wine, acting as a kind of “mute button” on the senses.
Why is that so? As with any attempt to match food with wine it pays to pause for a moment and consider the taste elements involved.
Cheese comes in three basic types: those made from cow’s milk, those
made from sheep’s milk, and those made from goat’s milk. Each has
distinctive characteristics, but they all share this in common: milk or butter fat.
Milk fat, especially that in rich, creamy cheeses, coats the palate and
interferes with our taste receptors. This influences the taste of any wine,
but it works against red wines more than white ones because of the
tannin and lower acidity of red wine. Except in rare cases, this does not
mean that pairing a red wine with creamy cheeses will necessarily result
in an unpleasant taste, but that the characteristics of the red wine will be
diminished rather than enhanced by the match. You may find you like
the muted effect, but in general the goal of matching food and wine
should be an amplification of flavors not a numbing of them.
With this the case, it makes sense that the best cheeses to have with red
wine are the less fatty, drier, semi-hard cheeses, especially ones with a
nutty or smoky flavor. True Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana, or Pecorino
Toscano from Italy work, as does an aged Gouda, Edam, Manchego, or
Asiago. What you are looking for is a cheese that does not coat your
mouth with butter fat, yet has a lot of taste to it. When selecting the red
wine to go with cheese, you can go one of two routes. You can select a
very muscular wine, like an Amarone, that can power its way past the
obstacles milk fat presents, or you can select a lighter, fruitier wine with
enough acidity to cut through the milk fat coating. A Beaujolais from one of
the named Crus (e.g., Flurie, Morgon, Julienas, Moulin-a Vent) would be good, as would a lighter style Pinot Noir, or a Spanish Tempranillo.
One of the classic and altogether wonderful pairings of red wine with cheese is Tawny or Vintage Port and blue cheese, especially Stilton or Gorgonzola. Older Port has a rancio flavor that imparts to it a rich, slightly oxidized quality that allows it to hold its own in this match, plus its sweetness is a perfect foil for the saltiness of the cheese. I have no doubt you’ll find it a brilliant match, one perhaps made in heaven.
But back to white wines. The best choices are again those with good
acidity and compelling flavors. The two best prospects are Sauvignon
Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Riesling also works very well, especially
with the lighter, more delicately flavored or creamer cheeses. Almost
everyone knows Sauvignon Blanc, with its sharp citrus and green grass
flavors, but very few are familiar with the rich, full-bodied spiciness of
Gewürztraminer. It’s the only white wine I know that can hold its own
with beef. A friend who owned a restaurant in the Alsatian town of
Colmar once suggested I try a dry late harvest Gewürztraminer with
Charolais beef he had topped with Muenster cheese sauce. I was at first
doubtful, but it turned out to be one of the best matches I’ve ever had.
Gewürztraminer can go with almost any cheese, but it goes particularly
well with strong cheeses, like Munster or Limburger. Sauvignon Blanc
comes in so many styles it can be made to go with almost any cheese,
but it goes particularly well with goat’s mike cheeses, a.k.a., chevres.
And let’s not forget Champagne, or sparking wines from other areas of
France, Italy, and California. They work marvelously well, what with
their high acidity and bubbliness that tends to cut through the milk fat of
cheese. Again there is a range of styles, from very dry to semi-sweet, so
you can find a sparking wine that will match well with just about any
A style of Champagne I particularly like is blanc de noir. Champagne is
normally a blend of wines made from the Pinot Noir (or Meunier) and
the Chardonnay grapes. However, if it is made using just Chardonnay,
it is designated a blanc de blanc, or a white Champagne made from
white grapes. Most everyone has heard of blanc de blanc, but not of
blanc de noir, which is a white Champagne made exclusively from the
black, or dark Pinot Noir grape. These wines tend to have more flavor
and character, and so stand up well to stronger foods. They display a
slight gray cast to their color, which is the result of their more extended
or concentrated contact with the dark skins of the Pinot grape. They are
well worth searching for.
If you want to experience heaven on earth, try a good French Sauternes
with Roquefort. Sauternes tends to be pricey, but fortunately you can
normally find half-bottles without much trouble. The main grape is the
Semillion. The grapes have not only been left on the vine longer than
usual, but they have been attacked by a fungus called botrytis that has
caused them to shrivel down to concentrated, raisin-like berries. The
result is very little juice can be squeezed from them, and that that is has
so much sugar it can not all be converted to alcohol. This makes for a
lusciously sweet wine that is one of the truly great experiences a wine
lover can have. So, before you die, try at least one good Sauternes. It is
also a classic match for fois gras, another to-die-for experience.
If you want something completely different, but wine related, try brandy
or a good eau-de-vie at the end of the meal with a strong cheese, such as
Epoisse, Muenster, or L’Ami du Chambertin. The classic match with
the latter is marc de bourgogne, marc being the French version of the
Italy’s grappa. Here the alcohol and fiery flavors of Cognac, brandy,
marc, or grappa are a potent match for the almost overpowering flavors
of the cheese. Calvados, the famous apple brandy, goes exceptionally
well with Camembert and cheeses from its native Normandy.
So, to end this post, when matching wine with cheese take a moment to
mediate on the texture and flavor of the cheese or cheeses you plan to
serve. Think about milk fat content and what it is likely to do to your
tastes buds. Then think of wines that might cut through or harmonize
with the fatty sensation of the cheese. In most cases you will want a
wine with pronounced flavor, and in all cases one with good acidity. If
you want to drink red wine with cheese, look for the drier, semi-hard,
less fatty cheeses and pick either light, refreshing red wines, i.e., ones
that in their way mimic white wines, or else get something so big and
strong its flavors will not be easily muted. Above all else use your
imagination and experiment. While there’s no “right” answer or perfect
wine/cheese match that will work best for everyone, I have tried to point
to some taste realities that should be taken into account. So, just close
your eyes, imagine the tastes of your favorite cheese in your mouth, and
then conjure up the qualities and flavors of the wine you think would
enhance your enjoyment. If you have a good wine merchant, the rest
should be easy.
If you want my thoughts concerning a particular wine/cheese match,
email me and I’ll be happy to make some suggestions.