The discovery of cheese, as well as wine, goes back to pre-historic times. Traces of cheese have been found which show its existence as long ago as 7000BC, with the world’s oldest wine jar dating to around 5400 BC. Cheese and wine are mentioned in the Odyssey, where the one-eyed giant known as the Cyclops Polyphemus tended peacefully to cheese-making in his cave. Odysseus and his men entered the cave, helped themselves to the food and drink they found there and fell asleep. Later on, Odysseus – in order to free his men – offered the Cyclops some strong wine which made him very drunk.
By the time Greece was at its pinnacle, historically speaking, cheese and wine had become celebrated parts of daily life. Cheese had an important status during the days of the Roman Empire and France has an uninterrupted history of cheese-making. Today, it is renowned for producing well over 400 cheeses. The French refer to wine, cheese and bread as the Holy Trinity of Food. Ancient cheese-making and wine-making traditions continue today, almost exactly the same as when they were first developed hundreds of years ago.
Evidently, wine and cheese have been paired together for centuries, but not every wine goes with every cheese. Most people take it for granted and think any piece of cheese will taste excellent with a sip of wine. In reality, pairing wine and cheese can be quite complicated. Nowadays, with more than a thousand wines and a thousand cheeses on the market, the number of combinations is over a million potential blends.
Both cheese and wine are natural products, created using a standard process but with a myriad of results. Like wine, cheese comes in a variety of forms. Cheeses vary in moisture and fat content, texture, and flavour. And, as we know, wines vary in acidity, sweetness, body, and structure. With all of the variance on both sides, the basic concept of pairing wine and cheese becomes far more challenging.
Cheese classifications are based on a number of factors such as the texture, the ageing, fat content, method of preparation, country of origin, as well as the animal content and several other factors. In fact, there is no single universally accepted classification. The most widely used designations group cheeses as:
• Young and soft: ricotta, chèvre, feta, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, mascarpone, mozzarella, manouri and young halloumi
• Semi-hard and medium-aged: havarti, Edam, Emmental, young cheddar, kasseri and gouda
• Hard and aged: aged cheddar, aged gouda, aged manchego, parmigiano, kefalotiri, reggiano
• Blue cheeses: Stilton, gorgonzola, Roquefort, Cambozola, Danish blue, and
• Smoked cheeses: mozzarella and Gouda
Wine and cheese have a lot in common, other than the fact that they pair so well together. They both reach their maturation and peak flavour through a period of ageing. But age is not the only factor to consider. The texture, saltiness and pungency of the cheese as compared to a wine’s structure and sweetness have to be considered. Furthermore, wine pairings have much to do with history and regional influences. Many cheese and wine varietals have grown up together, leading to complementary regional recipes for wine, cheese, and other local foods and drinks.
Wine and cheese pairing is considered a highly refined art, but it appears science plays a role as well. As food science developed, it became accepted that cheese makes wine more palatable, primarily because the high fat content in cheese coats the back of palate when you swallow. Studies conducted by scientists have shown that the concept of mouth feel (referring to the way foods feel in the mouth) plays a role when it comes to how people interpret food pairings.
It just so happens that the taste receptors for “bitter” reside at the back of the tongue, and when they are coated with cheese, the wine tastes sweeter and fruiter. Scientists believe that foods which sit on opposite ends of the spectrum of taste often create a pleasant taste sensation, triggering a good match in the mind. This is true for wine and cheese as well as many other food and drink combinations. When wine and cheese complement each other, their flavours are highlighted.
Briefly, there are two basic rules for pairing wine and cheese. The first rule is to match acidity. Tart wines should pair with sharper cheeses and mellow wines should pair with creamier cheeses. The second rule is to match power. Do not let a strong wine overpower a mild cheese, or vice versa.
First of all, consider the age of the cheese. Young varieties have a higher water content and a more milky and delicate texture. As cheese ages, the moisture in it gradually evaporates, leaving a harder, more rich and savoury cheese. For example, a Brie cheese which has aged may have added earthy notes, and cheeses like Gruyere and Emmental will gain nutty flavours after ageing. Aged blue cheeses will be even more pungent. The general point here is that with ageing, cheeses will tend to move from more of a delicate to a bolder style.
The same general observation can be said about wine. Consequently, try pairing young with young, and old with old. Young cheeses may partner best with juicy, fruity, fresh, and spirited wines, so think of sparkling wines, crisp whites, dry rosés, and light, fruitier reds. Older cheeses tend to be more complex in their flavour profiles, so get out the older and bolder wines.
Like cheeses, wines also run the gamut from delicate to bold, and their depth and complexity can correlate with their age, too. Young wines are fresh and spirited, with lively aromas and bright flavours of fruits, flowers, citrus, herbs or spices. Wines that have spent time in a barrel or a bottle have had a chance to knit together and acquire more nuance. In addition to their primary fruit flavours, they take on secondary notes of oak, toast, earth, oxidation, minerals, and more. Like cheeses, these wines tend to be more complex and savoury than their younger counterparts.
Wines high in tannins are excellent paired with rich, aged cheeses, as the tannins bind to the protein and fat in the cheese. But stay away from bold tannic wines and young cheeses. The wine will simply overpower the cheese. Additionally, sweet wines create a delectable balance with the saltiest of cheeses. Lastly, creamy cheeses blend well with buttery, oaky white wines. Evidently, older cheeses would need wines with more body and complexity. The very old cheeses, those that are the most savoury and rich and nutty, pair best with wines that have ample body and structure, and maybe oxidative notes, too.
Putting this all together, we arrive at few basic guide lines of wine and cheese pairing:
• Soft and fresh cheeses: The texture of light and creamy cheeses on the tip of your tongue suit crisp white, sparkling wines, dry rosé and light reds. Fresh and soft cheeses love crisp whites, dry rosés, sparkling wines, dry aperitif wines, and light-bodied reds with low tannins
• Semi hard, medium aged cheeses: The next step from fresh cheese is a firmer texture with stronger flavour. Wines that offer a balance between acidity, fruit and tannins are the best match for semi hard cheeses. So these need fruity reds, medium whites and vintage sparkling wines. These cheeses have a firmer texture and stronger flavours. They need medium-bodied whites, fruity reds, vintage sparkling wines and aperitif wines that offer a balance between acidity, fruit and tannin.
• Hard, aged cheeses: Harder cheeses are a lovely pair for full bodied whites and tannic reds. The saltiness of hard cheeses is terrific for sweeter wines. Harder cheeses love full-bodied whites and tannic reds. Their nuttiness also works with oxidative wines like sherry, and their saltiness makes them terrific with sweet wines.
• Blue cheeses: Wine for blue cheese needs to have a “POP” with a sweetness to balance the bold flavours and very salty, savoury body. Blue cheeses need wines with both “oomph” and sweetness to balance their bold flavours and usually very salty, savoury body. Admittedly, for most people, red wine is the go-to partner for cheese. However, the issue with red wine, especially a full-bodied red, is that it can overpower all but the most robust of cheeses. White wine, fortified wines and lighter red wines are often a much better match.
Here are a few other notes to keep in mind:
• Tannic red wines are terrific with rich, aged cheeses because their tannins literally bind to protein and fat, cleaning your palate after each bite. But the same process makes tannic wines feel far too astringent with young cheeses; they tie up what little fat is available, leaving you with a chalky sensation and a metallic aftertaste. If you must serve red wine with young cheeses, reach for one low in tannin or a sparkling red.
• Sweet wines beautifully balance the saltiest cheeses like hard Grana, blue cheese, aged Gouda or feta. The salt in the cheese heightens the perception of sweetness in the wine, so a wine that’s already headed in that direction makes for a breezy pairing.
• Rich, creamy cheeses blend seamlessly with buttery, oaky white wines, creating a truly harmonious palate sensation. But contrast can be welcome, too. The bubbles in sparkling wines pose a nice counterpoint to a rich cheese, scrubbing your tongue clean and making you want another bite. That’s why Camembert and Champagne are a classic combination.
The crafting of wine and cheese requires careful tending by a skilled artisan. Both flourish in specific climates and geographical conditions. This brings in the element of “terroir”, which describes how foods get their qualities from the earth and the climate, and that a wine and a cheese from the same region should share complementary properties.
Other than the above, the best way to execute a pairing is to discover it by trial and error. In preparation, open a bottle of wine and set out four varied cheeses, allowing each to come to room temperature. To begin with, take a sip of wine with a clean palate, that is, before eating any cheese. Then take a bite of cheese and make note of how you think it goes with the wine. Then take another sip of wine to see how it tastes after swallowing the cheese. Take written notes and proceed through the other cheeses, cleaning the palate each time by eating an unsalted cracker or piece of bread. Bearing in mind that palates vary from person to person, you are now on your way to becoming an expert on how you like to pair wine and cheese.
Wine and cheese combinations, much like all other aspects of wine, are a purely personal decision. That said, there are some combinations that are naturally pleasing to the vast majority of consumers. Usually one drinks red wine with hard cheeses and white wine with soft cheeses. These observations above are just guidelines – be sure to keep an open mind and find out what is best suited to your own palate! Since everyone has unique set of taste buds and olfactory nerve cells, the perfect pairing of wines and cheeses are ultimately a matter of personal preferences.