Getting Started with Cheese & Wine Pairings
When I was working with Camille Fourmont on a book all about La Buvette, her Paris cave à manger (a wine shop with food), she described a successful wine-and-food pairing like a couple enjoying a long walk together. Natural, not forced. In my new book, Wine Style, I’ve found the description to be especially true when pairing wine with cheese.
With cheese, the risk is low that the wine you pour will outright clash disastrously. But there’s a difference between a good match and a great one. While researching Italian sparkling wine, I visited Conegliano, a town in Italy’s Veneto region where some of the best Prosecco comes from. There, I sipped a glass of local bubbles alongside a slice of local Montasio. The Alpine cow’s milk cheese was good with Prosecco, but it wasn’t perfect: the wine was just a bit too light to stand up to creamy dairy flavor. Still, you can bet that I wasn’t complaining.
The cheesemaker, though, wasn’t satisfied. She swapped out my glass for Manzoni Bianco, another local wine made with hybrid grape—a cross between Riesling and Pinot Bianco that was made in the early twentieth century at the nearby enology school. The wine had similar bright acidity, but it was a little richer and more aromatic, and it drew out the nuttiness in the cheese. I had gone from a good pairing to a great one.
The lesson? With many cheeses, wines that have a little body often mirror the texture of the dairy. And acidity also helps to cut through the richness. Also, while light wines can be good with cheese, sometimes wines that are a tad richer can turn a good wine pairing into a great one.
Here are a few more rules of thumb to get you started:
- With white wines, look for options with high acidity and a bit of body without too much oak or skin contact. Look for Chenin Blanc, Verdicchio, Fiano, Riesling, and unoaked Chardonnay.
- Rosé is great with a range of cheeses, too, especially tart, light cheeses, like young goat cheese [Fromage Blanc and Inverness also work great here]. Both the wines and the cheeses have lively acidity and complement each other
- For reds, look for wines that are low in tannins, such as Pinot Noir. In general, big reds with a lot of tannins can be trickier cheese unless the cheeses are assertive themselves, like aged Cheddar [or Wagon Wheel].
- If you’re not sure what to pour, use the “what grows together, goes together,” adage, which simply means pick a wine that comes from the region where the cheese comes from. Chances are the two have been enjoyed together for generations.
- Serve crackers and bread alongside—and if you have the time, plan on drying clusters of grapes in the oven to nibble alongside (a recipe for oven-dried grapes is on page 77 of Wine Style).
Above all, go with what you like to drink. A pairing doesn’t have to be perfect to still be perfectly enjoyable. If you’re in good company, that’s what matters most.
-Kate Leahy, author, Wine Style (Ten Speed Press, 2021)