Pulling off the right wine pairing can turn an otherwise mediocre dinner into a killer experience. The real test is when you find yourself laughing the night away; only later do you realize the whole evening was borderline awful –your racist parents and their incontinent best friend– except for one thing: that effing wine pairing!
In this article, we give you some of the basics, but then we pull in a master sommelier who really had some bad ideas about cheese pairings. Enjoy!
Table of contents
Thinking About Wine Pairings
You should think of wine pairing like a postmodernist thinks about sex: it is all about trying new things, and there are no universal truths.
The Easy Ones
There are only a few tried-and-true wine pairings. A crisp white wine will work with sushi. A bold red wine will be awesome with a grilled ribeye steak. After that, it will take some creative loafing to get it right.
Experimenting on Friends
If you have some friends who won’t mind, you could engage in trial-and-error pairings before you find what you like, and most importantly, what your guests enjoy. But, of course, this only really works if your friends have infinite patience.
Otherwise, you may want to consider starting with the simplest pairings of them all: cheese pairings. After all, it’s just a meal with one ingredient. How hard could that be?
Let’s Just Classify Some Cheeses, Okay?
To start pairing, we need to create some categories. Cheese can be classified in several ways: you can sort it by milk source; cows, goats, sheep, and even buffaloes are milked for cheese. You can also organize cheese by what region it comes from.
One Important Concept
For wine pairing, let’s keep it simple. You should focus on moisture content and aging.
It’s all about evaporation, which happens to cheese over time. The older the cheese is, the higher the concentration of fats and protein compared to water. The harder the cheese, the better it will work with tannic red wines. It’s that freaking simple.
How To Make Cheese Sound Gross and Uncool
When wine writers talk about cheese, they tend to focus on sounding obnoxious. This quote is sadly too typical.
Cheese has an excellent reputation; it’s enjoyed worldwide and is known as a perfect companion to late-night conversations and a snack for all hours, every day. Like wine, cheese always has a place on the table, which makes the ability to pair wine with cheese an excellent skill to have in your repertoire.
To understand how wine and cheese pairings work, let’s talk briefly about the different cheeses around and the wines that go best with them.
Cheese is a dairy product made by coagulating the proteins in milk to separate and press them into solids. In fact, there are so many types of cheese that it’s hard to define.The Worst Food Writer in America
A Few Bad Ideas from a Famous Sommelier
I was at a trade show a few years ago, and one of the sommeliers held a seminar on cheese pairings. It should have been an easier assignment than it turned out to be.
Wine can also be classified in many ways. Red wine can be soft and elegant like the one made with Pinot Noir, Grenache, or Gamay; it can have a medium body and round tannins, like Merlot or Malbec; or it can be hard and structured like Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo or Tannat.A Sommelier Who Will Remain Anonymous
I started taking notes because the advice is so wrong and so common. It was worth repeating (and refuting) here.
The best way to pair red wine and cheese is by matching their perceived weight.
Vague recommendations are worse than none at all.
Fresh cheeses are perishable and lightly flavored. Think of ricotta, or mascarpone, for example. These types of cheese are hard to pair with wine on their own because we often don’t eat them by ourselves. These cheeses are better as part of more complex recipes. A creamy white or even a citrusy white wine pair nicely with the creaminess of fresh cheese.
This is nonsense. What matters is the acid levels of fresh cheese. A cheese with a high level of acidity, chevre, for example, will pair best with a high acid wine. The rapid increase of acidity in the mouth is perceived as sweet fruit flavors.
Brie and Camembert
Then we have soft cheese, like Brie, Camembert of fresh goat cheese. These cheeses are wine-friendly but can easily be overwhelmed by the flavor. They can be paired with both white wines and with the lightest of reds, like Pinot Noir. The lack of tannins in wine is good to pair with these moist cheeses lacking protein and fat concentration.
Semi-soft cheese, like Reblochon, or Morbier, is quite tasty; you can perceive the flavor concentration, which means that they pack more protein and fat. These wines go great with medium-bodied reds like Merlot or a fruity, young Malbec.
Incorrect by a mile. The white rind on Brie, Camembert, and Reblochon is why you don’t want to pair red wine with these cheeses. That rind is full of Penicillium, which in combination with the condensed tannins in red wine, will often result in an obnoxious flavor. Stick with a Chardonnay. It’s got the perfect acid level to work with these cheeses.
Hard cheeses like Edam, Gouda, Comté, Manchego or Parmigiano Reggiano prefer structured reds like Cabernet. The boldness in both wine and cheese complement each other.
This is actually true. The high levels of protein and fats in hard cheese are what matter here. The reason that so many people dislike tannic red wines is their intense bitterness. About 20% of the population is wired to dislike bitterness over a certain level.
When you drink a glass of red wine, do you notice how your mouth feels dry? This is because the wine tannins bind with the proteins in your saliva. The rest hit your taste buds. A hard cheese acts like a prophylactic. It captures most of the bitter compounds before they can register on your tongue.
This means you taste the wine, not the bitterness.
There’s the hardness in cheese, but there’s also the boldness of flavor. Washed-rind cheeses, colonized by aromatic bacteria, need full-flavored wines like New World Bordeaux styles, spicy Shiraz blends, or southern Italian reds.
God, no. The bacteria on the outer edges of this cheese has some bizarre chemical interactions with red wine. So stay with a high-acid white wine. Otherwise, you are heading into the cheese version of Russian roulette.
Blue cheese, which is the most pungent of all, needs something sweet to counter its aromas. A fruity, full-bodied wine like a California Zinfandel or an Italian Amarone pair great with bold blue cheeses like Stilton, Gorgonzola, or Roquefort. The best pairing is actually a fortified red wine like Port.
I really have to wonder if this sommelier ever tried this pairing. The blue in blue cheese is a variant of Penicillium. For about half of the population, pairing blue cheese with a dry red wine will result in a flavor that can only be described as rancid aluminum.
The only saving grace is if you add heaps of sugar into the mix. For an actual great pairing, you need to go with a white dessert wine.
This is not hard science. You have to try different combinations before finding what you like. The world of cheese is as complex as the world of wine. No cheese wheel is alike, and no two bottles taste the same. So, get creative, and have fun because wine and cheese are both fun; together, they’re a blast.