Oozing with flavour: Fromagerie Caseus, the excellent cheese shop in Montreuil, Pas de Calais, France
Let’s cut to the chase: wine and cheese don’t make the perfect couple most of us would like them to be. There are one or two famously good matches – Sauternes and Roquefort, Port and Stilton – but most wines don’t take cheese in their stride, which isn’t so surprising when you think what cheese brings to the party: strong, even pungent, flavours; saltiness; acidity, sometimes; and, not to be underestimated, mouth-coating texture. Whether hard and close-textured, runny or creamy, it’s a challenge for wine even to reach the taste buds. And then there’s tannin to take into account: the tannins in red wines clash with cheese and it’s the wine that is emasculated.
So, the pecking order of wines that work looks like this, going from the most versatile wines to the most difficult (warning: it may not be what you want to see):
sweet, rich white (i.e. dessert wine)
sweet, fortified red (e.g. Port or Banyuls)
Come back. I feel your pain, but there are cheeses that go with dry reds, especially hard cheeses, waxy or crumbly, cows’ or sheep’s milk, but not ferociously pungent or salty. Sheep cheeses are particularly successful – British, such as Lord of the Hundreds, French, e.g. Ossau Iraty or Etorki, or Spanish, e.g. Manchego. Among cows’ cheeses, Comté, cheddar, Parmesan, mature Gruyère and Gouda are all options. White Burgundies and other high quality, cool-climate Chardonnays are also good with these cheeses, as are Ports.
The most difficult are the soft, unctuous cheeses with bloomy or washed rinds – Camembert, Brie de Meaux, Pont l’Evêque, Epoisses et al – even more so when unpasteurised (like a lot of those pictured above). Catch them before they’re running all over the place if you value your wine. Try white Burgundy such as Chablis, Meursault or Pouilly-Fuissé, or a mature red, such as a Right Bank Bordeaux (e.g. Saint-Emilion), Graves, Chianti Riserva or southern Rhône (e.g. Vacqueyras). But leave your best bottles for another day.
Blue cheeses are child’s play in comparison with the gooey stuff. Think of the classic sweet wine matches – Sauternes with Roquefort, Port with Stilton – and you’ll be on the right track. Aim for vintage or good vintage-style Port (e.g. crusted) or ten-year-old Tawny. Try other rich, sweet whites – not necessarily Sémillon, although I would steer clear of Muscat/Moscatel), and remember that Tokaji Aszú is very versatile with cheese.
Goats’ cheeses are very different. This is where crisp, dry whites come in, especially Sauvignon Blanc and especially classic Loire-style, including Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, rather than the ripest, most exotically fruity Sauvignons. If you want a red, try the Loire again, e.g. Saumur or Chinon, or a non-oaky, not too tannic, cool-climate Syrah (i.e. with northern Rhône-style peppery, savoury flavours and fruit purity).
This post first appeared on thewinegang.com on 21st October 2015.
Photograph by Joanna Simon