Fromage Friday: Pairing Cheese and Wine

by Kelly on July 24, 2009

fromagefridaysToday my parents, sister and I went for a wine tasting at Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, Minnesota.  I went with my boyfriend last year when in Minnesota for my cousin’s wedding.  (You can read about it here.)  I had such a good time that I returned to Boston with two bottles of wine and an
P1012529 eagerness for a second wine tasting.  This year’s tasting was equally lovely and included two wines that were new since last year: a Reserve Chocolate Port and Gris d’Or.  Both were fantastic.  I ended up coming home with one bottle of the Chocolate Port, 2 of Gris d’or, and 2 of my favorite from last year, Rose Noir.  Given the day’s field trip it seemed appropriate to focus today’s Fromage Friday post on pairing cheeses and wines.  

My mother and me at the tasting

My mother and me at the tasting

 It’s true that you can pair cheese with a variety of beverages including beer, hard cider, grape juice, and even coffee but wine is by far my favorite companion for cheese.  There are no hard and fast rules in cheese pairing and ultimately it comes down to personal preference.  But there are some helpful tips I have picked up along the way that make it easier.

When pairing wine with cheese a great analogy to think about is a vocal duet.  Essentially just as with a duet you’d be aiming for two voices that sound good together you’re looking for to create cheese and wine pairings where the flavors harmonize together.  This can mean flavors that align or contrast with one another.  

Some key things to keep in mind:

  • P1012538Decide which will lead – Ultimately both the cheese and the wine cannot drive the bus.  Decide whether you’d like to start with a particular wine and find a cheese or cheeses to match or whether you’d like to find the wine that is best suited toward your cheese.  Once you’ve decided your starting point it becomes easier to think about potential pairings.
  • Strive for balance – You don’t want your wine to overwhelm your cheese or vice versa.  Because of this some strongly flavored wines and cheeses are better enjoyed on their own.
  • Too much complexity can be a bad thing – I avoid pairing complex cheeses and wines together.  There are often too many flavors and aromas going on resulting in a wine that doesn’t flatter your cheese or vice versa.  It’s often works better to pair a simple wine with a complex cheese and vice versa.  Whether you choose to make the wine or the cheese the complex partner is all up to you based on which you want to take center stage.  As a cheese obsessed girl you can probably guess which I would pick but you can absolutely make the wine the lead act as well.
  • Go for similarity or contrast – When pairing wine and cheese it’s a bit like decorating your home.  You can go for a colors that are beside each other or opposite on the color wheel.  For cheese and wine that might mean pairing a spicy wine with a spicy cheese or a sweet wine with a salty cheese.  Some other common pairings include contrasting or complimentary acidity and looking for similar floral or earthy flavors.
  • Consider terroir – Another way of deciding what wine to pair with your cheese can be to consider region and geography.  That might mean pairing a California wine with a California cheese or Tuscan wine with a Tuscan cheese.  However, not all wines from a particular region will complement the cheeses of that region so it’s still valuable to keep balance in mind.
  • Be careful of overgeneralizations – While generally a particular type of wine and cheese may work well together keep in mind that there can still be variation within type depending on terroir and other factors.  Thus although Grüner Veltliner may in general pair well with a Mahón or Cheddar some Grüner Veltliners will pair better with some Mahóns or Cheddars than other.  While there are no guarantees it helps to buy your cheese and wine from stores you can trust and who know their product well.  Being able to sample the cheese and wines separately and together also doesn’t hurt in building your pairings.
  • Take notes – Okay, this is where the dork in me comes out.  Whenever I’m tasting cheese and wines together I like to take notes to remind myself of what worked and what didn’t.  Since so much of pairing is ultimately all about trial and error it makes it easier to learn from my mistakes and remember.  I also take notes of pairings I see recommended on menus and in cookbooks.
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment – I believe that food can only be taken so seriously so you shouldn’t be afraid to have a little fun!  Sometimes the most unlikely pairings can be surprisingly complimentary.

And when in doubt, The Cheese Plate recommends the following wines as especially cheese friendly: Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Albanriños, Rieslings, and Sauvignon Blancs. 

You’ll know when you’ve made a good pairing when the flavors work well together and bring out the best in the cheese and the wine.  If you get a mismatched paring you’ll notice that the flavors clashed or bring out unattractive flavors or aromas in the cheese such as a metallic or excessively ripe taste.

The Tasting Experience:

P1010885So you’ve selected your cheese(s) and wine(s) and now it’s time for the fun part – tasting!  First, you’ll want to try each pair of wine and cheese separately to get a sense of the flavors.  Then I take a bite of cheese press it behind my front teeth and take a generous sip of wine.  I let the flavors and scents mingle in my mouth to see if the flavors meld together or whether they seem to clash.  From there I continue to move on to other pairings and take notes all the while (as mentioned above) of things I did and did not like and observations of flavors and scents.  I use what I’ve learned to influence what I pick in the future.

What about you?  Is there a wine and cheese pairing you especially love?  How did you discover it? 

Your daily moment of cuteness - Oliver and me in the vineyard!

Your daily moment of cuteness - Oliver and me in the vineyard!

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Carolyn Jung July 24, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Sherry with Manchego and a handful of almonds. I first had it at a Spanish food conference. The sherry has nutty notes, which goes beautifully with the cheese and almonds.


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 9:28 am

Carolyn, That sounds like an amazing combo. I’m a big fan of pairing that bring out similar qualities in both items. I will have to try that one.


shannon July 25, 2009 at 6:44 am

hmm, i’m a newbie at this wine thing 😉 cheese and i go way back though… i’ll have to work on that!


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 9:27 am

Shannon – I’m definitely a wine newbie as well. I never started liking it until after college, but now I’m a bit of an addict.


Lauren July 25, 2009 at 8:07 am

I haven’t done much experimenting with wine and cheese pairings, but I always though it would fun to host a tasting party – so thank you for this tutorial! It’s 8:00 in the morning, and I’m craving cheese and wine ;).


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 9:26 am

Lauren – You’re very welcome. I’ve definitely craved cheese at 8:00 in the morning before – like right now.


elra July 25, 2009 at 8:18 am

Oliver is so cute, so do you Kelly!
Thank you for the useful tips.


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 9:25 am

Elra – Hehe. Thank you. 🙂 He’s definitely much more of the cutie in our relationship.


Elina July 25, 2009 at 10:25 am

You’re so knowledgeable on the subject. Those are some really great tips! I love wine and cheese together but never really think about true pairings. Once in a while we have some nice aged gouda in the house (or something like that) so we enjoy it with some red wine. That’s about it 🙂 I’d love to get my palate a little more refined. Wine + cheese really are a great combo!


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 10:32 am

Elina – Thanks. 🙂 I’m a bit obsessed on the subject so that’s where the knowledge comes from and having taken the Cheese Certificate Course certainly helps. I will admit though that most of the time my pairings are much more spontaneous. Sometimes they work and sometimes they are an awful fail. It certainly helps though in learning what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes being adventurous and spontaneous is the best teacher.


Kerstin July 25, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Thanks for the great tips! I’ve never made a conscious effort to pair wine and cheese, so I learned a lot!


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Kerstin – You’re very welcome. 🙂 I love writing about this kind of stuff.


Chou July 25, 2009 at 10:31 pm

Kelly, these tips seem like they could work for anything! Thanks for sharing.


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Chou – That’s a very good point. I think a lot of what applies to one aspect of food also makes sense in other areas.


Reeni July 25, 2009 at 10:34 pm

I’m sorry I’ve missed so many of your posts! Somehow I lost tract of you when you moved to .com. I thought I had updated with your new URl but somewhere something went wrong. This was a great post – so many good tips! And I need them – I’m just lost when it comes to the pairing.


Kelly July 25, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Reeni – No problem. 🙂 I know how tricky it can be to keep track of all your blogs you are reading. I’m thankful for vacation because my blog reader is finally under control.


Guava July 27, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Ooh… what fun!! And Oliver looks like a great mascot will we get to visit the Pink Apron Winery someday for tastings??? Perhaps with some vegan nut cheeze options…. (Batts eyelashes)… pretty please???? 🙂


Kelly July 27, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Guava – Hahah! I think the Pink Apron Cheese farm is more likely. I’ve also been thinking I need to whip up some more vegan cheese sometime soon. Unfortunately not this Friday because I am going out of town but trust me, it’s on the docket.


Mo July 27, 2009 at 8:27 pm

First, great photo of you and your pup! Great tips, you offered some super information and your writing style made it fun to read at the same time. One of my favorite wine combos is cabernet sauvignon and blue cheese. I’m definately more of the wino, and need to learn more about the cheeses. I’ll be reading your Friday posts for that.


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