Cheese is one of the most misunderstood foods when it comes to matching with wine. Cheese connoisseur Terry Kirby gives advice on how to do it properly.
Cheese and wine are alike in so many ways it's no wonder we often consume them together. Both have vast ranges of styles, where national and regional traditions interweave with climate, soil and other changing natural influences, meaning one year's batch can be very different from the last. Pests and moulds play their own parts, as does the temperature at which they are consumed.
Production methods, how they are kept and aged – or not – and the love and care, as well as the whims, of the people that make them all shape individual character.
And like a Bordeaux lover anxious to learn exactly from which château the wine he is drinking comes, true cheese enthusiasts demand to know which of the seven East Midland dairies licensed under the EU's Protected Designation of Origin scheme has produced the Stilton they are eating. Both wine and cheese embody a place, a people and a sense of terroir.
But, as we reach for the oatcakes and pour another glass, there are some rules to remember: don't assume only red wines can be drunk with cheese – there are some wonderful matches with whites. Also, mature, strong cheeses generally work better with bigger, fuller wines and fresher, lighter-tasting cheeses with youthful wines. However, bear in mind that the wide variety of cheeses and cheesemakers – particularly new artisan British cheeses – mean one cheese may be very different from another, even if it is the same style or comes from the same area. And finally, don't be afraid to experiment!
With that in mind, here are some recommendations:
Hard cow's cheese
Farmhouse Cheddar is still made by three Somerset companies: Keen's, Montgomery's and Westcombe. These rich, nutty flavours need to be paired with appropriately robust, full red wines, otherwise the cheese will dominate. Try any syrah-based southern Rhône, such as Château Courac, or perhaps a silkier Barossa shiraz of similar age. The latter, or maybe a big Barolo, would go equally well with an aged Parmesan. A crumbly, lactic, sharper Lancashire cheese, such as Mrs Appleby's, needs a fruitier, but well-structured wine. A good Beaujolais is ideal, like those from Morgon.
Hard sheep's cheese
Dry, salty cheeses with a long aftertaste are best with the big red wines or full-bodied oaky whites, such as an Australian chardonnay. However, go for a Valpolicella with younger, milder Italian Pecorino, any medium-bodied, tempranillo-based wine for Spanish Manchego or the wonderful, smoothly nutty Ossau-Iraty from the French Pyrenees.
Farmhouse Gruyère, and other French semi-hard cheeses like Comté, or English ones like Cornish Yarg can be wonderful with pinot noir, or white wines, particularly those with good acidity, such as a riesling, which cuts through the cheese's fatty nature. Try zippy Loire sauvignon or New Zealand rieslings.
Stilton, Roquefort and Gorgonzola represent a pinnacle of cheeses. Strong, creamy, salty and pungent, they demand big, structured wines to match their deep, complex tastes. Although some will reach for Claret, fine Bordeaux may be too elegant to compete. A perfect combination is a good fruity vintage Port,or a drier tawny Colheita, particularly with a bowl of nuts. Sauternes delivers the classic sweet/salt combination. Dark, tannic red wines from the south of France, such as Corbières, Madiran or Cahors, also make a fine match for the local Roquefort, tempering the 'sheepy' richness.
Runny French cheeses are difficult to match with wine. The distinctive ammonic, farmyard smell of a good Brie or Camembert doesn't really complement many wines, but try a lightish, fruity red, such as Saumur Champigny, from the Loire, which will not fight the cheese. Strangely, really pungent washed-rind cheese, like an Epoisses, work well with spicy, aromatic wines like viognier or gewürztraminer. The so-runny-you-eat-it-with-a-spoon Vacherin Mont D'Or is best accompanied by a Côtes du Jura, the local chardonnay based wine cuts through the creaminess.
Mature goat's cheese
This is where crisp, dry whites can slice, razor-like, through the sometimes cloying texture of goat's cheese, which can defeat red wine. With chèvre salad or the ash-covered Crottin de Chavignol and walnut bread, try Coteaux du Languedoc Blanc, Château de Valflaunès, 2011. Experiment with a New World chardonnay, such as Heggies Chardonnay, its acidity balancing that of the cheese.
Fresh goat's cheese
All young, fresh grassy cheeses demand an iced, full-bodied rosé, such as those made in the Languedoc-Roussillon, or a light, possibly chilled red, such as a Saumur Champigny -, to balance the creaminess. But a floral, off-dry English white delivers very different, complementary hedgerow flavours. Santé!
Terry Kirby writes for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and has his own blog at https://terrykirby.blogspot.com