If deciding on cheese and wine pairings makes you run for the vacuum cleaner (my favourite procrastination chore), I'm here to talk you back to the cheese board. The truth is that pairing cheese with wine is an imprecise art. Generalizations (sweet with salty, pair locally, balance acidity) are good starting points. But even cheeses in the same style can vary in richness, complexity and intensity that can change the balance of a pairing (think about a complex Brie de Meaux versus a milder generic version). Some cheeses suit many partners, others are more finicky. Port may be an acceptable match for your favourite blue but Madeira might be heavenly. It's trial and error.
While en route to pairing nirvana you will probably find that most cheese and wine pairings do not fall into extremes (magnificent or horrible) but rather somewhere in the middle. Usually when we experiment with others, we sip our wine, eat some cheese and carry on our conversation without stopping to either spit out a nasty combination or marvel at its synergy.
And it is this synergy that makes a pairing special. It elevates both the cheese and wine, leaves a harmonious linger and evokes flavours that weren't present in either party individually.
My quest for cheese and wine bliss took me to Manhattan where I signed up for an afternoon of New World wine and cheese pairings run by the cheese experts at the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center. I also spent the morning at the Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro (associated with the school) to experience some Old World wine matches.
At the bistro I dove in with a flight of three Italian cheeses and wines. It began with a soft cheese, the gentle and luxurious Robiola Bosina paired with a delicate pinot grigio. Next a firm, sweet and nutty Piave was complimented by the soft tannins and earthy, fruit qualities of a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Finally, the boldest cheese, a sweet, piquant Gorgonzola Cremificato was matched with a Barbera D'Alba whose fuller body, riper fruit and higher acidity easily went head-to-head with the creamy blue.
As each consecutive cheese became more expressive, the wines became fuller in body and flavour. The logic of pairing creamy cheeses with wines featuring cleansing acidity was confirmed both in the pinot grigio/Robiola pairing and with the Barbera D'Alba and the velvety blue.
Yet the real "aha" moment came when I asked for a pairing to go with France's famous meaty, silken Époisses. You might expect a full-flavoured red to match this oozing, pungent cheese but I was presented with a Côtes du Rhône blanc. This weightier white featuring floral, peach and apple notes not only stood up to the strong cheese but also showcased its balanced, savoury character. The other pairings had been good but this one elicited pure contentment in its fruit and salt balance and long, soft finish.
After my less formal tastings at the bistro I was ready for a more structured classroom experience. We were presented with seven cheeses ranging from a tangy, soft-ripened goat cheese and a rich triple-crème to a fruity Stilton.
We had four wines to try with each cheese: torrontes from Argentina (perfumy, stone fruit, mid-weight, refreshing) and a chenin blanc from South Africa (full bodied, slightly off-dry, tropical fruit). The reds were a pinot noir from California (fruit forward, soft tannins) and an Australian shiraz (robust, dark fruit, spice).
The most successful cheese with multiple wines was the triple-crème Pierre Robert. Its creamy richness worked with the acidity of the whites and the same fatty quality softened the tannins in the red wines, creating dark-chocolate notes on the finish.
The friendliest wine was the fruit-forward pinot noir, which even worked with the Stilton (I had assumed the cheese would overwhelm it). The pairing brought out mushroom, gamey, dark-chocolate notes on the palate. Even the pinot gris came through for the Stilton, its aromatic, slightly off-dry nature working with the salty, fruity character of the cheese. The shiraz ended up being the most finicky match, making the goat cheese chalky and clashing with most of the stronger cheeses.
I've discovered that guidelines (like fresh goat cheese with sauvignon blanc) can keep you in a safe zone but finding the perfect pairing is akin to having your clothes tailored versus buying off-the-rack. With practice your preferences will become apparent and once you find the match that makes your palate sing, don't let anyone tell you it doesn't work.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.