Cheese Pairing 202: A Pungent Argument for Whites

Until fairly recently, the topic of wine and cheese received scant coverage beyond suggestions for cute cheese knives and cutting boards, surely the two least important bits of knowledge within the subject. The days of serving Gallo hearty burgundy with your favorite cheese ball were not complicated. However, as part of the culinary renaissance that has swept this country over the past 15 years, our experience in both wine and cheese has become more refined, resulting in a taste for finer, more complex examples of both. With this raising of the bar has come the challenge of matching the two without either being overwhelmed or tainted by the other.

In this regard, one really has to wonder how the long-established perception of pairing cheese with a big red wine persisted through so many years in several countries. It is usually a bad and frequently awful match, the salt and acid of the cheese clashing with the tannins of the wine to produce an unpleasant, bitter, metallic taste. Surely, the worst example of this is the age-old British tradition of drinking Bordeaux with Stilton, where the Bordeaux is reduced to aluminum Kool-Aid.

While there are certainly some red wines that complement specific cheeses (Rioja with Ibores; Cru Beaujolais with Camembert; old Cabernet with aged cheddar, come to mind), white wines are far more likely to be satisfying. This is almost certainly true with a cheese plate having a variety of styles to taste; it is highly improbable that a red wine will not clash with one or more of the cheeses. The whites are generally devoid of tannins and have a relatively high level of acid to stand up to the cheese. Their flavors also tend to be more in the fruits and nuts categories that generally appear in the cheeses as well.

Because of the strong aromas and tastes of most cheeses, it is usually the cheese that dominates. A very fine wine is characterized by its complexity and multiplicity of aromatic nuances. These are usually suppressed or distorted by cheese, so, to avoid disappointment by an expensive wine, I would generally favor a good, but fairly straight-forward, wine, saving the grand wine for a simpler food companion. Great wine with cheese is a bit like Pavarotti singing “Honky Tonk Women”; not bad, but certainly not showing their best.

In recent years, there have been several books largely devoted to the pairing of wines with cheese, and, if you have adequate interest, I recommend Laura Werlin’s, The All-American Cheese and Wine Book, and The Cheese Plate, by Max McCalman and David Gibbons. Both books are excellent guides, but can be fairly tedious, simply by virtue of the scope of possible combinations they are discussing.

In an effort to provide a brief set of practical reference points, I suggest the following:

The most versatile white wines for pairing with cheese are Riesling and Champagne. They each have enough fruit to deal with, and frequently enhance, the flavors of the cheese, and their crisp textures cut through the fat and refresh the palate. If another choice is not apparent, go with one of these. The one caveat is that Champagne with a blue cheese can sometimes take on that metallic characteristic mentioned above.

Goat cheese comes in a spectrum of styles, but most have a tart, chalky quality that is problematic for many wines. A good sauvignon blanc is usually your best bet, particularly if it is a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume` from France’s Loire Valley. The Loire whites are produced from limestone soil and taste of flint and citrus that complements the cheese. These are increasingly available throughout the country. Riesling also usually works here, particularly with richer versions of this cheese.

With cheeses that are very salty, such as most blues, go with a sweet wine. These wines often pair well with a variety of cheeses, and for an after-dinner cheese course, they are usually very pleasing. Port and sauternes are the classic matches that still hold true today. Others are late-harvest riesling and semillon, and, something to be sought for such an occasion, a high-quality Pedro Ximenez sherry (Lustau and Alvear are marvelous producers).

If available, try a Gewurztraminer with a variety of cheeses. This highly fragrant wine has ample acidity and a slightly bitter aftertaste to cleanse the palate and can be scrumptious with a double- or triple-cream cheese, like some of John Folse’s from Bittersweet Plantation.