Toronto, Canada has an entire convention devoted to Wine and Cheese, now going on for more than 20 years. But perhaps one shouldn’t get too excited, since the pairing goes back at least 4,000 years.
Both products are made from living substances and improve with age, both are a product of fermentation, the process by which yeast cells introduce chemical changes and both reflect their terroir. ‘Terroir’ refers to the combination of soil, climate and region from which the product comes.
Traditionalists suggest that the wine and cheese be paired according to region or strength, thus preventing one from overpowering the other. Part of the reason is the tannin levels. Red wines, fermented with the skins, have a higher concentration than white and this affects the pairing characteristics. The protein and fat in cheese helps coat the palate, reducing the harshness of excess tannin.
This view goes so far in France as to be incorporated into the AOC laws. Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée is a set of regulations dictating grape growing and winemaking conditions, labeling, output, etc. Sometimes this match works well — the historic Grand Cru Montrachet is a perfect partner for the Montrachet Goat Cheese, having been made side by side for centuries.
Wines with higher tannin content do pair well with harder cheeses, whereas creamy cheeses require a wine with higher acidity, while whiter, fresher cheeses complement a crisper, fruitier wine. Heavy or rich cheeses make a fine partner to light reds or even Chardonnay. For example, Caraway and Gewürztraminer, Feta and Beaujolais, Havarti and Bordeaux.
Those who enjoy a sweet or dessert wine should seek out a strong, veined cheese and a full-bodied white or younger red with lower tannins goes well with a soft, bloomy white or red dotted rind.
As examples, a Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier or Riesling, even a Pinot Blanc, does wonderfully with most Goat’s cheeses such as Fontina or Feta, Averti or Emmental. A dry Gewürztraminer pairs delectably with Brie or Camembert, Livarot or Oka. And a Gamay Noir or Cabernet Franc, even Barbaresco, does just fine with no rind, a Gouda, Gruyère or Munster.
When you’ve selected a complex Pinot Noir or Syrah, or one of the new Super Tuscans try a Chaput, Langres or Gubbeen. And for that Bordeaux or Grenache don’t miss out on the oiled Parmigiano, Cantal or Tilsit.
Last, for the sweet Vouvray or Sauternes, or your favorite Auxe Icewine look for a blue-veined, a Cambonzola, Moutonnière or Mascarpone.
Traditionalists will always favor the tried and true rules of red with this and white with that or full-bodied with full-flavored and light with light. The radicals advocate experimentation and will favor the new and zesty. And the anarchist will say: ‘Down with rules!’. But whatever one’s leanings, all can agree that wine and cheese are the perfect running mates.