The cheese plate c’est arrivé! Thanks to fantastic imported cheese selections at markets like Liberty Heights Fresh and Caputo’s Market & Deli, the cheese course has finally found its way to Utah. Both of those establishments, by the way, periodically offer lips-on tasting courses to help us learn about the endless possibilities of pairing cheese with wine. And, whether you indulge yourself in a cheese-tasting class or not, I do urge you to stop into those stores and pick the brains of the knowledgeable cheeseheads there. They’ll turn you onto stuff that will rock your world.
Remember the old days? You know, when we would confidently pair red wine with meat and white wine with fish? Well, you’re probably already hip to the fact that those days are over, my friend. To wit, you’re much more likely in a restaurant to have a Pinot Noir recommended to you for the salmon dish you ordered than any white wine. It’s pretty much the same deal with cheese. The old school instructed us to drink white wines with soft cheeses and save the red wine for the harder stuff. Yeah, well, fuhgeddaboudit. The new school says drink what you like and stop worrying about fussy pairings. I more or less subscribe to that notion. For example, I’ve never encountered a better cheese/wine pairing than French Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano, a very hard cheese that, on paper, ought to be eaten solely with red wine.
Still, I wouldn’t want to throw the rulebook out entirely. With any food and wine pairing, there are some dos and don’ts if you really want to bring out the best in both the food and the wine.
So what I look for in cheese and wine pairings is the same thing I look for when pairing, say, chicken and wine: harmony. Generally speaking, we’re talking here about intensity. So, just as I wouldn’t pair an intense game dish with a flimsy Pinot Grigio, nor would I put a powerful cheese—Gorgonzola, for example—next to a floral Viognier. But there are exceptions, such as Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is more of a case of opposites attracting. As a rule of thumb, though, you just don’t want the cheese to overpower the wine and vice-versa. Light, soft cheeses usually pair best with light, soft wines: Goat cheese is terrific with Sancerre but would be sucker-punched by an inky Rhone Valley red or California Cab for that matter. For those wines, I’d go with a more intense cheese like Reblochon, English Cheddar or Stilton.
Along with the strength, weight or intensity of the cheese, you also want to think about the body. That is, the moisture content of different cheeses varies wildly, from creamy, almost wet cheeses like Tallegio to the aforementioned bone-dry Parmigiano-Reggiano. The nearly 50 percent fat content of creamy Tallegio translates into a high lactic content, which tends to make any wine paired with it taste stronger. So you’d want to avoid an already strong, tannic and/or oaky wine. Instead, choose an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, for example. And if you’re dead set on drinking something red with creamy cheeses, at least reach for a lighter wine like Rosé or Beaujolais.
Since low-moisture aged cheeses like Gorgonzola have a high salt content, they work almost the opposite as the creamy, younger cheeses in that they help to tame the tannins and alcohol in wine. So that’s where you’ll want to break out your powerhouse reds.
Don’t forget, though, that the most important goal of any food and wine pairing is to have fun, and maybe discover some interesting food and wine affinities in the process.