The Marriage of Wine & Cheese
A deep appreciation for wine and cheese together takes time. Just as a wine or a cheese needs time to develop, so too must we take the time to taste purposefully to appreciate this four-thousand-year marriage. I propose that you approach pairing wine with cheese by thinking about the components and character of cheese and wine, and by concentrating on a single wine and a single cheese over time. Luckily, we’re in fertile ground: Wisconsin is in the midst of a rebirth and explosion of artisanal cheese, and wine has never been better.
Why Marry Wine and Cheese?
We take the marriage of wine and cheese for granted. But why? One of the first lessons I learned about matching wine and cheese actually came from a salesman. He said, “We sell on cheese and you should buy on fruit.” And he was right: Cheese can make mediocre wines taste downright delicious!
Why is that? One level, they each soften the excesses of the other. The acidity and tannin in wine will often balance the richness of cheese and vice versa. This, then, sets the stage for the greatest aspect of this pairing: the synergy that results from complementary and contrasting flavors. For example, nutty, tawny Ports work well with nutty cheddars because of this similarity, but the dried-fruit quality of this type of Port is a fantastic complement to those nutty cheddar flavors.
On a less reductive note, however, perhaps there’s something to the historical development of wine and cheese as food that yields such wonderful matches. After all, as products of fermentation, they both began as means to store food. The greatest examples of wine and of cheese are intimately tied to specific places that evolved through decades or even centuries of trial and error, be it Napa Valley, Camembert, Pleasant Ridge or Lake Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, people describe them in the same nomenclature—fruity, acidic, robust—and enthusiasts engage in elaborate tasting rituals to appreciate their flavors.
Making the Marriage Work
One of the earliest lessons I learned was that finding successful wine and food matches was empirical—you won’t know what works until you actually try them together. Those handy cheese and wine cards can be useful to narrow wines down, but in the end you really learn only by tasting. When our team tastes a new cheese at L’Etoile, we think of four things in the following order: the cheese’s texture, its components, its flavor and its character.
Here’s an example: We have new wheel of Holland’s Family Farm Marieke Gouda. It’s a semisoft cheese, but it’s also dense, which gives the feeling of firmness. We know from experience that dense cheeses can usually absorb tannin in wine, so this might be a good candidate for a young red. The second thing we think about is the components of the cheese: Is it salty? Sweet? Acidic? The Marieke’s salt and acidity tastes nicely balanced; nothing out of the ordinary for this style. It has a lovely impression of sweetness from the richness of the milk; however, that might make a very dry wine taste less appealing. Thirdly, and the most fun, is to ponder the cheese’s actual flavors.
This Gouda shows a pronounced nutty quality that reminded us of a chestnut liqueur we used to serve and also tastes a tiny bit caramelized. It’s not a pungent or even very strong cheese, but it is made from raw milk, so it possesses a savory flavor. Perhaps a fruity red would be a nice contrast?
To test this, we lined up four reds: a Beaujolais, a Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, a Rioja and a Cabernet Franc from Napa. The strawberry-like fruit of the Beaujolais was a delicious contrast to the nuttiness of the cheese, but the wine was too dry—it tasted a tad sour with the cheese. The Rioja was nice and oaky but didn’t have a lot of fruit; what it had tasted a bit lost with the cheese. The Cabernet Franc was too powerful. The Pinot, however, was fantastic; the Gouda brought out a spiced cranberry component to the wine while the wine’s balance of acidity and fruit tamed the cheese’s creaminess but also focused its flavors of nuts and caramel.
Six months later, the Gouda had taken on a hard, Parmesan texture with little crystals and a very nutty and much stronger flavor. We returned to the Cabernet Franc and found that it was lovely.
These are the ways that most sommeliers go about matching wine with food. But I would add another: Match the character of the cheese to the wine. Specifically, if you’re serving an artisan cheese—made from local milk by a single person or small team and aged in a local area—try to find an artisanal wine, one where the producer grows the grapes herself, makes the wine, and ages it at the estate. Similarly, if you’re serving a cheese made from raw milk sourced from pastured animals, try to find a wine with a similar pedigree such as made from grapes sourced from a single vineyard. Not only are these pairings poetic, they are usually quite congenial.
The single greatest thing you can do to enhance your appreciation of wine and cheese is to visit a vineyard or a dairy.
Making the Marriage Last
As living things, both wine and cheese develop over time. One of the most rewarding ways to enjoy them together is to taste that development. Find a cheese and a wine that you like and stick with it for a while. Buy a wheel and taste how it changes over the weeks.
Buy a case of wine you like and see how it develops over a few years.
The process of cultivating an appreciation of wine and cheese together never ends. Taste with a sense of purpose, connect the people and places with the food they produce, and you’ll live better.
Michael Kwas is wine director at L’Etoile restaurant. He writes the monthy “Off the Vine” column. Find archives of his wine recommendations at madisonmagazine.com.