Wine and cheese have a lot in common, other than the fact that they go so well together. Cheeses vary in moisture and fat content, texture, pungency and flavor; wines too, differ in elements like acidity, sweetness, body, and structure.
Both cheese and wine require careful tending by skilled artisans. Both reach their maturation and peak flavor through aging. Although not effectively part of the actual cheese making processes, aging can make or break cheese. This is the same for wine.
AgeSo the first consideration for a good cheese and wine pairing is age.
Young, fresh cheeses have a higher moisture content and a more milky and delicate texture. As cheese ages, in a process called affinage, the moisture slowly evaporates, leaving behind fat and protein, which carry flavor. Older cheeses tend to be more rich and savory, while fresher cheeses are more delicate and mild.
In addition to drying and concentrating the cheese, time spent maturing in the cave also introduces new aromas and flavors. Bloomy-rind cheeses (think Brie) remain gooey and spreadable, but pick up earthy notes. Blue cheeses develop pungent notes from the noble mold in their veins. Older cheeses like Fontina, Parmigiano and Asiago acquire nutty accents. Stinkers, like Taleggio, own a funky, bacon-like redolence that only comes with repeated washing of the rind during aging.
Like cheese, wine also can be delicate, bold and everything in between. A wine's depth and complexity often has a lot to do with age. Young wines are fresh and spirited, with lively aromatic profiles and bright notes of fruit, flowers, spices and herbs. Wines that have spent time in a cask/tank or in the bottle have had a chance to build up a bigger personality. Just like cheese, in addition to their primary flavors, wines take on secondary elements of oak, earth, minerals, umami, and more. Like cheese, older wines tend to be more complex and savory.
It's therefore clear how younger cheeses partner best with younger wines that are fruity, fresh and juicy: sparkling wines, crisp whites, dry rosés, and reds with good acidity and vibrant fruit notes.
Older cheeses need wines with bigger shoulders. The oldest cheeses, those that are the most savory and rich and nutty (think a 36 month-old Parmigiano Reggiano) pair best with wines that have even heftier body and structure.
TextureBut age is not the only factor to keep in mind when pairing cheese and wine. The texture of a cheese also influences a wine pairing. By congruity, rich, creamy cheeses pair well with similarly buttery white wines, creating a somewhat harmonious balance on the palate. But pairing by contrast is even better in creating that balance. The bubbles in sparkling wines are a nice counterpoint to rich, unctuous cheeses, scrubbing the tongue clean and causing salivation: the body's way of asking for another bite. That's why camembert and Champagne; robiola and Franciacorta and burrata and Prosecco are such perfect combinations.
NoseAnother good rule of thumb to follow when pairing cheese and wine is, "The funkier the cheese––the funkier the wine." A odoriferous cheese will do wonders when matched with a very rustic wine, so with a washed rind Taleggio I choose a natural wine from Etna or Abruzzo, whose rural backbone can hold court with the pungent cheese. In the same way smelly Taleggio finds an excellent counterpart in aromatic Riesling and perfumy Gewürztraminer.
Sweet and saltyAs mentioned above, contrast is where cheese and wine pairings work magic. Sweet dessert wines like Passito beautifully balance the boldest and most savory cheeses like gorgonzola or other blue moldy soft ripened cheeses. The salt content in the cheese heightens the perception of the sweetness in the wine. By the same token, the sweetness in the wine complements the savory character of the cheese, providing balance––a perfect pairing.
TanninBig reds are terrific with rich, fatty aged cheeses, because the tannins in the wine literally bind themselves to the protein and fat, and sweep the palate after each bite. Cheeses that are very soluble will benefit from tannic wines' astringency. Tannin does not work with younger, less fatty cheeses, and leaves a chalky sensation in the mouth and a slight metallic aftertaste.
A word about goat cheeseGoat cheese is a sensational cheese to pair with wine: as the jack of all trades of dairy, goat cheese––depending on age and texture––can marry sparkling wine, white and red!
Sparkling Trento DOC (made like Champagne but with Chardonnay grapes) is the perfect wine for ultra-fresh goat cheese and mixed goat-sheep robiolas. Acidic, mineral-driven, and citrusy as hell Vermentino is perfect with 30-40 day-old chèvre logs. As it ages, goat cheese develops a creamline and spiciness that will match up fantastically with Sauvignon Blanc or a softer, more easy-drinking red like Dolcetto from Piemonte. Deeper, earthier and more aged goat cheeses will need a wine with bigger structure: think Nerello Mascalese from Sicily.
Pairing by terroirBoth cheese and wine ultimately flourish in specific climates and geographical conditions. Which is why when pairing wine with foods the old adage, "what grows together, goes together" is particularly appropriate when it comes to pairing wine with cheese.
Cheese is the product of milk, and milk is the product of an animal's diet. What the animal grazes on grows from a very specific soil, influenced by a particular climate. So where terroir influences wine, it ultimately does the same with the area’s cheese. Pastures and vineyards share the same chemical, climactic and physiological conditions.
Some examplesAn ancient Roman cheese like Caciofiore della Campagna Romana, which to this day is still intrinsically part of the area where it’s produced, will pair beautifully with Cesanese wine, an indigenous grape that grows in the vicinity of Rome in the Ciociaria wine region. Likewise, Pecorino Romano––practically still made like 2,000 years ago––pairs well with a fine Frascati Superiore made in the Castelli Romani wine lands located only a few miles from the Colosseum.
With an aromatic and pungent stinker like Puzzone di Moena I pour a ruby wine with a floral bouquet like Marzemino or Teroldego, both grape varieties indigenous of the same Alpine valleys of Trentino-Alto Adige where the cheese is made. See what I did there? I applied the concept of aromatic contrast (nose) as well as the same terroir.
For a fatty cheese like Mascarpone, I go for bubbles. The carbon dioxide concealed in the fine bubbles of Franciacorta, Lambrusco or Prosecco is capable of cleaning and balancing the creamy, adhesive mouthfeel of the triple-cream cheese. The majority of Italian bubbles have northern Italian origin, like mascarpone.
For long-aged cheeses like Provolone del Monaco DOP, a good pairing is with a fine pedigreed, well-structured red like a Aglianico, or a vivacious Gragnano or Lettere Penisola Sorrentina. These wines all grow in the same volcanic area where the cheese is made. Caciocavallo Podolico from Puglia finds its best mate in Nero di Troia and in Primitivo di Manduria.
Fresh, young cheeses like Mozzarella di Bufala, Ricotta or Burrata beg to be served with a tender and vivacious wine capable of bringing out the sweetness of the cheese. Think southern Italian Fiano di Avellino, which offers balance with acidity, creaminess and musky notes, all in one sip. Other good wines to pair with fresh, young cheeses are Moscato, unoaked Chardonnay and Champagne.
A spicy cheese like aged Castelmagno, Asiago or Comté pair well with a voluptuous, round and velvety wine: Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, or even a sweet liqueur-like wine like Barolo chinato. Here too, cheeses and wines share the same geographical characteristics.
In the Veneto region, Garganega grapes make the wines of Soave, a crisp white with a slightly bitter almond finish. The bitterness in this wine makes it a fascinating match for young Asiago, which––you guessed it––is a Veneto cheese! The more aged versions of Asiago go surprisingly well with fruity, off-dry Prosecco or Moscato d'Asti, again from the Veneto.
What is your go-to cheese and wine pairing?
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