The Ultimate in Cheese & Wine Pairings

By breaking old rules, you can discover new tastes.

The late afternoon is when Kelley Levin likes to sit outdoors in the warm sun, a light breeze at play, and sip a dry rosé coupled with a creamy Brie. Levin, marketing communications manager for Sonoma, CA-based Laura Chenel, the namesake cheesemaker who pioneered American goat cheese production, discovered this perfect pairing by trying both the cheese and wine separately, and then simultaneously. The natural combination works because the cheesemaker’s creamy Brie plus the rosé both have mild, yet vibrant taste profiles. Best of all, the dry rosé cleanses the palate with every sip, making taste buds ready for the next bite of velvety cheese. This dynamic duo is not Levin’s only preference. As she likes to say, “asking me for my favorite wine and cheese pairing is like asking for a favorite jeans and top combo—it totally depends on the occasion, mood and setting.”

Cheese and wine have partnered for centuries, from Roman banquets to Renaissance paintings and beyond. Like ‘meat and potatoes’, the origins of these food matches have been lost in time yet are ubiquitous and spontaneous. However, there are some interesting differences when it comes to cheese and wine that have been driven by geography and cultural belief. For example, cheeses made in certain geographic regions were naturally partnered with wines from that region. Likewise, early cultural and medical beliefs about bodily ‘humors’ led to the combining of cheeses and wines of similar color hues, i.e., white meats and lighter cheeses with white wines, dark meats and heavier cheeses with red wines. Nowadays, advancements in food science have encouraged leaving behind the older culturally-based conceits about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

“Cheese and wine pairing is a laboratory for many of the most emblematic palate interactions: the interplay of fat and acid, the amplification of like flavor compounds produced in milk and grape fermentation like diacetyl, which our tongues perceive as buttery-ness, or citral, which our tongues perceive as lemony-ness,” says Mike Koch, co-founder and president of Accident, MD-based FireFly Farms, makers of hand-crafted goat and cow’s milk cheeses, and Board of Director’s treasurer of the Englewood, CO-headquartered American Cheese Society. “The interplay of these flavor compounds in virtually infinite combinations, have liberated the consumer and schooled the pedantic—cheese and wine pairing should be fun and driven by an exploration of one’s likes and dislikes. Taste, after all, is subjective.”

Popular Pairings

White wine, especially sparkling whites with bubbles, are across the board ‘cheese-friendly’, according to Laura Werlin, cheese expert and author of six books including the James Beard award-winning, “The All American Cheese and Wine Book”. “These are a good place to start as a wine choice, since they go with virtually any cheese. For me, Humboldt Fog is my go-to cheese for a slam dunk pairing with a sparkling wine or sauvignon blanc.”

Humboldt Fog, the flagship cheese from of Cypress Grove, is a soft, mold-ripened, wheel-shaped goat cheese that features a distinctive ribbon of edible vegetable ash. When young, the flavors are of buttermilk complemented with floral notes and herbaceous overtones. As this cheese matures, the cream line develops, and the flavor intensifies to the point where it stands up well to a pinot noir and zinfandel.

“Little Giant joined the Cypress Grove family of cheeses earlier this year. It’s smooth, buttery and delicate; a bright and fudgy goat cheese that makes a big impact,” says Haley Nessler, the Arcata, CA-based cheesemaker’s senior marketing manager. “We love enjoying Little Giant with bubbles—prosecco and other sparkling wines. It’s also lovely with pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc.”

A little bubbly is also excellent with soft cheeses from Vermont Creamery in Websterville, VT, especially Cremont (a double cream mixed milk aged cheese) and Bonne Bouche, the flagship of the cheesemaker’s aged cheese lineup.

“Both bring the soft mouthfeel of well-aged goat cheeses. Champagne or a favorite sparkling wine matches well with the silken paste of these two popular cheeses,” says Kara Young, who handles communications and outreach.

The triple-cream richness of cheese like Mt. Tam makes it a buttery bomb meant for bubbles.

“Champagne, Cava, Prosecco—any level of fruitiness or dryness plays well with the rich flavor of the milk and the earthiness from the rind of the Mt. Tam,” says Amanda Parker, managing director of Cowgirl Creamery, in Point Reyes Station, CA. “Our new Inverness cheese is our hidden gem. Made with milk from nearby and inspired by St. Marcellin, it is a little cheese that packs a lot of flavor. Like the Mt. Tam, sparkling wines align extremely well with it. And we also love a sparkling rosé.”

A dry rosé sides splendidly with a chunk of Bay Blue, a rustic-style blue cheese with a mellow flavor and salted caramel finish introduced in 2012 by Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., in Point Reyes Station, CA.

The flexibility of a white or red wine pairing is true, too, with a Laura Chenel Black Truffle Log.

“It’s a crowd-pleaser teamed with a California sparkling wine, especially for truffle lovers. The aromatic, rich and earthy flavor of the truffle cheese is perfectly balanced by a dance of bright bubbles. However, a big red also works nicely with our black truffle cheese. This is because, since our logs are fresh cheese, there really isn’t much bitterness to compete with, thus making them pretty versatile to pair,” says Levin.

She adds, be careful of big wines with high tannins. These are the most challenging wines to partner with cheese. A degree of bitterness in wine with high tannins eaten with a cheese with even a small amount of bitterness can create a not-so-tasty experience and does a disservice to both products.

One of the hottest emerging trends is the union of natural wines and raw milk cheeses. In this, the preconceived pairing rule book goes out the window. Instead, the taste of place is the focus. In other words, the flavor nuances of the soil and fruit in the wines and the land, animals and milk in cheeses served together less deliberately. A good example is Winnimere, a cheese from Jasper Hill Farms in Greensboro, VT, that is wrapped in strips of a spruce tree’s flexible inner bark, then washed in a cultured salt brine to help the rind develop while aging.

“The best way to enjoy Winnimere is by peeling away part of the top rind and dipping in with a spoon, says Zoe Brickley, director of communication and education. “Pair it with a smoky, meaty, natural red (wine).”

Make It a Meal

Beyond the one-plus-one combination of cheese and wine, there are opportunities to mix and match the two with other foods and at meals.

For brunch, suggestions include Cowgirl Creamery’s fresh cheeses, such as its Fromage Blanc in sweet or savory combinations like with fresh berries or as part of an omelet or quiche along with bubbles. Similarly, Laura Chenel’s Orange Blossom Honey Log spread on a crostini topped with fresh fruit pairs well with a sparkling rosé or fresh juice mimosa.

Chenel’s Original Goat Cheese Log stars in the signature Chez Panisse salad created by chef Alice Waters with fresh greens and goat cheese rounds that have been sliced, breaded and baked. It makes a light lunch for a sunny day combined with a glass of citrusy sauvignon blanc.

“We’ve had many a cottage cheese protein bowls for lunch. Our hand-cut curds are swaddled in our crème fraiche. It’s what cottage cheese dreams of being. A rosé or sparkling rosé makes this lunch extra special,” says Cowgirl Creamery’s Parker.

Start with Cypress Grove’s Little Giant warmed in the oven and topped with brown butter, walnuts and sage as a pre-dinner appetizer. It’s rich and decadent, especially with a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio to enjoy alongside. For dessert, try a Humboldt Fog Brule: slice off the rind, sprinkle with raw sugar, Brule with a culinary torch and spoon up between sips of bubbles.

Cheese boards can be simple or fancy, eaten before or as a meal, and for any season or occasion.

“Start with a range of textures and styles like Mt Tam, Red Hawk (washed rind), and something more aged like our Wagon Wheel, which is the star of our grilled cheese at our café. Add some cornichons and fruit and all you need is a California red with a little fruity character that will couple seamlessly with all three styles. Syrah works as does a GSM blend/Cotes du Rhone-inspired blend. To turn this cheese into a charcuterie board, add one or two styles of cures like a salami or paté or a whole muscle cure like prosciutto,” says Cowgirl Creamery’s Parker.

DIY: Tips to Get Started

There are no hard and fast rules for serving cheese with wine, only try-it-you-may-like-it recommendations.

“Call me boring but I always go with cheese I love along with wine I love, and I am never disappointed,” says Sebastien Lehembre, senior marketing manager for Savencia Cheese USA, based in New Holland, PA, and maker of specialty cheeses under brands like Alouette and importer of French-made brands such as St Andre. “One can argue the association is not perfect—but as long as it is pleasing in my palate, well I win because it is all about the experience and the gratification you get from it.”

Do taste the wine and cheeses separately before attempting to pair. This is to identify big flavors and acidity levels before, says Laura Chenel’s Levin. “Then, when eaten together, ask yourself if the wine is taking away from the cheese flavor or if they are complementing each other; it shouldn’t be a competition. And pay attention to how the two feel together in your mouth.”

Finally, start simply with one wine and three kinds of cheese, recommends Werlin, who in addition to book writing is a frequent presenter at festivals such as the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CO. “It’s a case of less is more. You can taste each cheese against the one wine and gradually you will start to find that a pattern emerges. Then you can add a second wine. If you have both a white and a red, then expand to three to five cheeses. Beyond that, the best way to learn your favorite cheese and wine pairings is to taste, taste, taste.”

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