All the Cheese, All the Wine, All the Time
Ah, cheese and wine. Those cubes of rubbery cheddar speared on toothpicks, those plastic glasses of something red from a jug. The perfect pairing, right? Well. Maybe if you're at a poetry reading in the 1970s. Otherwise, let's rethink this situation.
There are hundreds of great artisanal cheeses sold in the U.S. these days, and thousands and thousands of different wines available on store shelves. And cheese and wine do love one another—just not always.
For one thing, cheeses vary widely in flavor and texture. First, there are different milks. As Kent Torrey of The Cheese Shop in Carmel, California, says, "Any mammal that gives milk, you can make cheese from it. I've even got an Australian camel's milk cheese right now. It's like a feta. And great for hump day." (I mean, dad jokes are supposed be cheesy, but ...)
There are also different families of cheese: soft, creamy cheeses; pungent washed-rinds; firm, aged cheeses; mold-veined blues. Michaela Weitzer at NYC's Murray's Cheese says: "With wine, I think the family actually matters more than the milk. A washed-rind sheep cheese won't go with the same wine as a young Manchego, even though they're both made from sheep's milk." She adds, "Tannins in wine matter a lot, too," which is why big reds can overpower many cheeses.
What to do? Run back to those rubbery cheddar cubes, buy a box of toothpicks, and call it a day? No. Just trust your own palate. Jenn Mason at Curds & Co. in Boston says, "If you buy the cheese you like, and you drink the wine you like, they're probably going to go together." Wise words.
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Even so, doing a deep dive into how some cheeses taste amazing with some wines is both fun and palate-rewarding. Some great combos are classic (the lemony notes of a fresh chèvre with a tart Sauvignon Blanc); sometimes they're more modern and decadent. (Weitzer suggests a truffled triple-cream cheese with Champagne, to which I say, "Sign me up.") And sometimes they're just wildly surprising. "Pinot Noir, Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm, and Whoppers—the malted milk balls—that's an amazing combination," says Mason. "People are like, 'This is funny,' and I'm like, 'Nope, trust me—this is really, really good.'"
The Cream Bombs
These are the softies of the cheese world, the Bries and Camemberts, the burratas, the triple-creams like Brillat-Savarin and Saint-André, and American versions like Four Fat Fowl's unctuous and absurdly delectable St. Stephen. Creamy, soft cheeses like these love bright, zesty wines. Michaela Weitzer at Murray's Cheese in NYC says, "I prefer either sparkling wine, to break up the fat of the cheese, or something really crisp and acidic, like a Loire Chenin Blanc."
2020 Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc ($25)
Dog Point's Sauvignon impeccably balances its buoyant grapefruit juiciness with hints of flint and lime zest. This wine with some ripe Humboldt Fog? Terrific.
2019 Lang & Reed Mendocino Chenin Blanc ($30)
Proprietor John Skupny took inspiration from the dry Chenins of the Loire Valley for this fragrant California white; its aroma recalls wildflower honey and white peaches.
NV Champagne Delamotte Brut ($66)
This nonvintage brut is everything you'd want it to be: delicate and lightly chalky, with floral, citrus, and stone fruit notes—a perfect partner for rich triple-cream cheeses.
Semifirm cheeses like comté, young cheddar, Manchego, and so on are easy to love and rarely so funky that they frighten the cheese-wary. They also pair easily with wine. At The Cheese Shop in Carmel, California, Kent Torrey has a basic rule for pairing wine and cheese: "It's all about balance. If you have strong, flavorful cheese, look for strong, flavorful wines; light, delicate cheese, light, delicate wines." These cheeses lie in the middle, so look for similarly easygoing wines: unoaked Chardonnays, zesty whites like Albariño or Pinot Grigio, or lighter reds like Beaujolais.
2020 Blue Quail Chardonnay ($16)
The flavor of this grace‑ ful Chardonnay recalls Bosc pears and green apples. It comes from the organically farmed McFadden Vineyard in Mendocino County.
2020 Granbazán Etiqueta Ámbar Albariño ($22)
This flinty, grapefruity Albariño comes off brisk and bright, almost invigorating, and matches with a young Manchego brilliantly.
2020 Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Grigio ($21)
From a monastery that's been making wine since 1142, this Alto Adige Pinot Grigio offers more complexity and depth than most.
Bring on the Crunchy Crystals
Love red wines? Head for aged, hard, dry cheeses. They take on nutty and caramel-like flavors and often form white crystals of calcium lactate (in cheddars, primarily) or the amino acid tyrosine (in Dutch, Swiss, or Italian hard cheeses—unfortunately, for some, tyrosine can be a trigger for migraines). Cheesemongers call these "crunchy crystals." They don't add tons of flavor, but they definitely add textural appeal.
Michaela Weitzer of Murray's says, "Your Parms, your super-aged Gouda, that's the sweet spot for your bigger reds." Add to that list lengthily aged cheddars, Italian cheeses like Bra Duro or Piave Vecchio, or vividly orange-hued, 18-month-old Mimolette, and you have a palette of cheese possibilities for evenings when a Cabernet, Barolo, or Rhône Syrah is the wine of choice.
2018 Il Borro Pian di Nova ($29)
This affordable Syrah-Sangiovese blend from the organic Il Borro estate in Tuscany goes superbly with some good Parmigiano-Reggiano drizzled with a little balsamic vinegar.
2018 Feudo Montoni Lagnusa Nero d'Avola ($23)
All red plums and mocha, this robust Sicilian red comes from organic vineyards located in the heart of Sicily. It weighs power against elegance surprisingly well.
2017 Ackerman Memoir Napa Valley Red Blend ($50)
Kent Torrey of Carmel's The Cheese Shop says, "I had this terrific Cabernet-based red with a cave-aged Gruyère recently, and together they were incredible."
Feeling Funky, Feeling Blue
"Époisses is a commitment cheese," says Jenn Mason of Boston's Curds & Co. (and the creator of the Curdbox cheese club), a statement that could extend to a lot of washed-rind cheeses. Washed rinds are made by moistening the outside of the cheese with liquid—anything from salty water to brandy, cider, and other alcohols—as it ages. They range in intensity from mellow to intriguingly aromatic to straight-up, in-your-face stinky. The wines that go best with them vary because of that, but a dry or off-dry Riesling is almost always a good choice.
The other polarizing category is blue cheeses. If you are a blue cheese fan, "That's when you go for the sweet wines," says Kent Torrey. "The classic pairing with Roquefort is a Sauternes—you get this elixir of unctuous apricot and peach flavors that offsets the acidity and saltiness of the cheese." Same for the equally classic pairing of Stilton and port, where the sweet intensity of the wine balances the salty, tangy, umami of the cheese.
2019 Chateau Montelena Potter Valley Riesling ($35)
After 2018, when Montelena couldn't make any Riesling due to smoke, the 2019 is an electric comeback, its lemon-peach fruit lifted by bright acidity.
2018 Albert Bichot Fixin Rouge ($53)
When Burgundy grands crus run upward of $400 a bottle these days, a complex village red like this one from Fixin (at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits) is a total pleasure to find.
NV Graham's Six Grapes Reserve Port ($27)
Six Grapes lives up to Graham's 201-year history with rich, dark flavors of plum and blackberry and round, velvety tannins. Hard to imagine a better wine for Stilton.
2019 Château Climens Cyprès de Climens Barsac ($57)
The more affordable second wine from this acclaimed Barsac château is rich with candied citrus peel, honey, and golden caramel notes.
The Cheese Does Not Stand Alone
Here's the equation: One plus one plus one equals wow! The right cheese and the right wine together are delightful, but sometimes the right accompaniment adds that little bit of sweetness or tanginess or crunch that will lift the partnership right up into the flavor stratosphere. Not all condiments are created equal, though. Look to these seven for your holiday cheese-plate planning.
Try matching an excellent fruit conserve like Le Bon Magot Sour Cherry Pomegranate with a washed-rind cheese that utilizes similar flavors—in this case, Blakesville Creamery Afterglow, which is washed in a cherry-flavored Belgian ale.
Le Bon Magot, Sour Cherry and Pomegranate Conserve, $13 at amazon.com
Honey and cheese is a great combination; cheese with spicy honey—the chile-infused Mike's Hot Honey, for instance—adds an irresistible twist to the equation. Try hot honey drizzled on fresh ricotta.
Mike's Hot Honey 10 oz Easy Pour Bottle, $10 at amazon.com
The sweet-sour richness of Giuseppe Giusti Balsamic Vinegar, Three Gold Medals adds an intensity of flavor to hard, salty cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano that's impossible not to like. Drizzle a bit and enjoy.
Giuseppe Giusti Balsamic Vinegar, Riccardo Giusti's Three Gold Medals, $45 at surlatable.com
Nuts to You
When F&W Restaurant Editor Khushbu Shah tasted Mitica Moka Pecans, her response to these cocoa-caramel-coffee-covered nuggets was simple: "They are so good." Pair them with a creamy blue cheese and a glass of dessert wine.
Mitica Moka Pecans, $14 at murrayscheese.com
The Preservatory Blood Orange with Campari & Vanilla comes from a farm-to-jar Canadian preserve specialist. "They're phenomenal," says The Cheese Shop's Kent Torrey. Try this one with a creamy Delice de Bourgogne.
The Preservatory Blood Orange with Campari & Vanilla, $13 at thepreservatory.com
You say Tomato...
"Beehive has a cheese called Barely Buzzed that's rubbed with espresso and lavender," says Jenn Mason of Curds & Co. "It reminds me of wood-fired pizza dough; we pair it with Brooklyn Delhi's Tomato Achaar, and it tastes like a pizza."
Brooklyn Delhi Tomato Achaar - Indian Chili Sauce, $8 at amazon.com
...On Blueberry Hill
Blue cheeses pair well with sweet fruit jams that balance out the cheese's tangy saltiness. Blackberry Farm's Blackberry Jam, made from blackberries picked in Kodak, Tennessee, is a great choice.
Blackberry Farm's Blackberry Jam, $15 at blackberryfarmshop.com
Go Beyond Baked Brie
On a trip to the French Alps in 2019, my wife and I, frozen from snow and sleet, popped into a cozy little restaurant to thaw out. We noticed that all the locals had medieval-looking hibachis on their tables, a cage of hot coals in the center of each one. Sausages sizzled on a grill grate above the coals; below, the coals doubled as a broiler for small wheels of Reblochon cheese. "We'll have that," I said.
A bottle of cold, crisp Savoie wine hit the table, and then the real action started. Individual skillets of the ultra-creamy, bloomy-rind cheese arrived, along with charcuterie, little boiled potatoes, fresh baguette, cornichons, and a Dijon-dressed green salad. After a few minutes under the broiler, the smell and sound of the cheese signaled it was time to pour the melted Reblochon all over our dinner plates. We dug in, dragging the accompaniments through the oozy, toasted cheese. Later, a few minutes of Google searching led me to La Forge de Megève (laforgedemegeve.com), which makes approximately 300 of these braziers a year. The shop was just over the next mountain. The following morning, I bought one.
Back home, in cool weather, I gather friends around that brazier, warming our hands while waiting for the cheese to crisp. It isn't Reblochon, because unpasteurized soft cheeses aren't available in the U.S., but a bloomy-rind wheel from Vermont or Wisconsin still hits the spot. And you don't need a specialized brazier to make this meal at home—you can use your broiler or a toaster oven. It's the perfect partner for a crisp white wine on an equally crisp winter evening. —Mary-Frances Heck
Where to Get Your Cheese
The Cheese Shop
Longtime proprietor Kent Torrey has a vast knowledge of cheese and regularly stocks more than 250 selections. thecheeseshopinc.com
The gift selections from this venerable NYC cheese-lover's haven are impeccably chosen. murrayscheese.com
Each monthly shipment from this top-notch club has a theme and includes specialty food pairings. $50 per month, curdbox.com
Olive Wood Cheeseboard
Mutlu Bank's gorgeous cheeseboards, starting at $99, are available at etsy.com/shop/woodenthingscraft.