In our minds, they’re as inevitable a duo as Adam and Eve. But are wine and cheese always meant to be? Each comes from simple ingredients transformed into something extraordinary through fermentation, but with thousands of options apiece, pairing wine and cheese without specific guidelines is as thoughtless as setting two people up just because they are both single. I generally don’t advocate mixing rules with pleasure, but since many wine and cheese pairings commit senseless crimes against one another, I offer these guidelines to elevate broken marriages (or marriages that merely work) into matches made in heaven.
Contrary to the popular red wine-with-cheese convention, white wine is generally a better partner for cheese. The fat and protein in cheese bully the subtle complexities in red wine and the tannins in red wine rob cheese of its unique personality. So why do we continue to support this dysfunctional relationship? I don’t think it’s given much thought, actually. Since many people now serve cheese after the meal (à la Europe), we drink whatever is left over in our glass after dinner. Instead, risk looking unsophisticated and serve cheese before a meal with sparkling, white, or rosé wines. The variety, texture, acidity, and/or carbonation of these wines will cut through cheese’s fat, letting the delicate flavors shine from the diet of whatever cow, sheep, or goat gave its milk so generously. Serve an oozing triple-cream cheese like Explorateur with a yeasty Champagne, or chunks of nutty, crystalline Parmigiano-Reggiano with a frothy Prosecco and you’ll be anything but gauche.
Another option is to eat cheese as dessert with semi-sweet wines (like off-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer), dessert wines (like Moscato d’Asti or Sauternes), or fortified wines (like port or sherry). I went into wine and cheese nirvana eating aged Mimolette (a neon orange cow’s milk cheese with a dusty rind dotted with holes from cheese mites used in the aging process), in all its floral, hazelnut, and butterscotchy glory, with a late-harvest Pinot Gris from Alsace boasting smoky, apricot, and toffee notes.
Red wine drinkers need not despair though. Exceptions to the rule reside in the adage that “what grows together goes together.” When terroir (the physical, environmental, and traditional factors that influence a grape) plays such an integral role in the wine of a particular region, it follows that these factors would influence the cheeses of the same region. The vines and animals are living off the same earth, after all. While a Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre) with Crottin de Chavignol (goat cheese from a village at the base of Sancerre) will always be my ultimate regional pairing, magical moments are just waiting to be had with reds, too. Try Époisses (a superbly stinky, washed-rind cow’s milk cheese from Burgundy) with any of the famed region’s simple (or grandiose, if budget allows) takes on Pinot Noir. Or, pair a buttery Robiola Bosina from Italy’s Piedmont region with its fresh, lively reds like Barbera or Dolcetto. And, from Virginia, taste Crozet’s Our Lady of the Angels Monastery Gouda with Barboursville Vineyards’ Nebbiolo Reserve.
The finest partnerships—whether in love or in wine and cheese—should bring out the best in each other. Each may be lovely on its own, but together, they are sublime.