Wine and cheese make a lousy match. There, I’ve said it. It’s sad, I know, but it’s what science tells us. I had to confront this unfortunate reality when I was writing a book about American cheeses. My editor wanted me to add wine and cheese pairing notes, and I had to tell the truth: That our obsession with the perfect wine and cheese pairing was always a kind of well-intentioned mistake.
Look at it this way: The end of a great meal, when the cheese course is served, is no time for new, big decisions. The best wine to round things out is almost always whatever’s left in the bottle already on the table.
But here’s the bigger issue: We harbor the assumption that finding the right wine for your cheese will make them both sing. But really, much of the nuance and many of the most treasured flavor dimensions of a wine—berry, dried fruit, oak, mushroom, vegetal and bell pepper aromas—are actually greatly diminished (if not lopped off totally) when your mouth is full of butterfat. The proof comes from a 2006 study done at UC Davis, thrillingly titled, “Sensory Effects of Consuming Cheese Prior to Evaluating Red Wine Flavor,” which asked a panel of tasters to describe a variety of wines before and after tasting them with cheese. All the wines pretty much flattened out after getting cheesed, so a fine (and expensive) bottle tasted much closer to a cheap, decent one.
And it makes sense, too, when you learn how cheese-folk learn to taste cheese. A classic English way to introduce yourself to a pushy, stinky washed-rind or blue-veined wheel of something sexy is to slather some black bread with unsalted butter, top it with a tangy chunk, and scarf. That is: Calm the wild beast, then chew, swallow, and repeat with less butter each time as you get acclimated to the cheese. The extra fat from the butter smoothes things over and makes nice, so you can ease your way into the cheese’s flavors. By that same logic, why wouldn’t cheese itself, which has 50 to 75% butterfat in the solids (not counting the water, which is about half of most cheeses) have a flavor-calming influence on a fabulous wine? Ask your favorite winemaker if he’d like you to try his vintage baby in a way that significantly diminishes the delicate details. Then duck.
So what does pair well with cheese? Beer, ale, hard or soft cider, pear juice, smoky single malt scotch…plenty of punch to go around. And port. The cheaper the better. In fact, toss a few walnuts into the mix and those hard edges get smoothed and the bargain porto gets silky and becomes a sexy two-stepper for a pungent, creamy blue.
That’s not to say that wine is never OK with cheese. Sauvignon blanc with goat cheese, oaky chardonnay against an aged sharp cheddar, sparkling wine with a creamy triple crème all work well enough, and there’s a broad range of combinations that anyone can enjoy. But it would be a shame to go all American Express Platinum on some extraordinary collection of handmade artisan cheeses, sport for a major bottle of world class deliciousness, and diminish both in the process.
Wine and cheese have gone together for hundreds of years, mostly because it’s what was on hand in the rustic agraria still living large in our fantasies of simpler (read: dead at 35) times long gone. Most wine is just fine with most cheese, but exhaustive, precise, and expensive pairings? Let those pass gently, if not quietly, into history too.More storiesWhat will fracking do to your food supply?How going gluten-free let me find the love of my lifeChasing perfection