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Failsafe Pairings

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By Rachael Lucas

Wine and cheese people can get into heated debates about what constitutes a good pairing. 

Some argue that the wine and cheese should always be on equal footing, marry well and kind of meld into one another.  I do not feel this way.  Sometimes I want the wine to be the main attraction, in which case, I choose a cheese that buttresses the qualities in the wine or merely behaves as an accompaniment and leaves little to no palatal print to note.  Other times, I yearn to bring out certain nuances in the fromage and pick a wine to support it accordingly.  There are instances in which a playful, aromatic bantering is in order.  There are other situations when a duel, a brawl on the tongue, occurs which is the case with astringency, spices, or funk in cheese combined with high levels of tannins and acids in wine.  And occasionally, yes, it is pleasant to have the two mesh into a single entity in the mouth and retro-nasal passage (that area between the back of the tongue and throat where many aromas and flavors are gleaned).  These are indeed harmonious pairings. Through my trials and studies, I have developed a list of classic and failsafe couplings which palates across the spectrum can agreeably appreciate.  If you are not looking for a palatal challenge, the following pairing advice will serve you (and hopefully your guests…at a good distance, for the time being) well.

Sauternes and Blue cheese 2 PicmonkeySauternes and Roquefort is a classic combination

One classic coupling that I frequent is Roquefort and Sauternes--the sweet wine from Bordeaux that is created from grapes that undergo a “noble rot”, which ensures rich dulcetness and encourages notes of honeysuckle and apricot.  The reason this pairing bodes well is that Roquefort has a significant level of salt (as do other blue cheeses) and a piquancy that gets a fondle from the viscous and perfumed elixir.  Stilton and Tawny Port are another revered duo.  Blue cheeses have on average 2% more salinity than other cheeses, so pairing this brand of fromage with sweet wines (especially cloyingly so) almost always makes for a choice dessert or afternoon snack.

Another fantastic classic is Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosecco.  These are both high acid entities and textural hulks.  Therefore, the oral activity that ensues when the two meet is a whirligig of tyrosine crunch, acidic high-fives, a fruity yet salty spume, and a TNT blast of nutty CO2 through the nostrils.  Besides grana-style cheeses, other well aged cheeses, like a good, mature Basque ewe’s milk tomme, a British style cheddar, a grandpa gouda, or any other husky, dry beast will do.  Champagne and other sparklers made in the classic style have a softer texture and a little more finesse than Prosecco and its kind.  It is fun to taste the two styles of bubbles with the same cheeses because the subsequent mousse reactions are entirely different from one another.  Champagne is also notorious for being coupled with triple crème bloomy rinds, but I take issue with the medicinal quality that comes about from the penicillium in the rind.  If I were to pair bubbles with a brie of any sort, I (shudder to admit) would avoid much of the rind and just enjoy the paste.

A power couple that I look forward to as the temperatures drop is aged cheddar and full-bodied, high tannin, jacked-up intensity, Cabernet Sauvignon.  These alphas (especially the clothbound, cave-aged variety of cheddar) both possess significant complexity, and they stand up well to each other.  If you are trying to conjure up as much oral excitement as possible, go for a California Cab that prides itself in depth and voluptuousness, and try washing down a nibble closer to the rind, which is where you will find hints of horseradish, herbs, and pasture.  

Another good tip to remember is the cliché what grows together goes together.  In both wine and cheese, if you are paying attention, you will glean notes of terroir.  In such instances, if the two hail from the same location, they will share a similar taste of place.  Such is why one often pairs Alsatian Riesling with Munster, Sancerre with Loire Valley Crottins, Robiola with Nebbiolo and Barbera, and Manchego with Rioja.

If, however, you feel like branching out, you are not alone.  Something to consider is the level of acidity in both the cheese and wine.  Because they are deemed funky, moldy, spicy, stanky, and rank, people are shocked when they learn that blues and washed rinds are cheeses with higher pH (lower acidity).  Consumers assume that they also have high acidity because why not (?), as they have so much else going on.  Blues and washed rinds also have a higher salt content, which stifles acidic development.  As such, there is no competition in acidity with a high acid wine like German Riesling, Cava, Albariño, or aged Verdelho. 

Winemakers like to make blends in order to create balance.  They try to soften tannins to avoid too much astringency, or add a higher acid grape to sidestep flabbiness, or use oak for structure and alternate aromatics.  I like to match up wine blends with well balanced cheeses like alpine styles.  This category of fromage is not too acidic (as it is also washed at least a little), is a profound expression of terroir, and has textures that range from spongey and squeezy to firm, crystalline, and even crumbly.  The flavor profile of these range from roasted brussels sprouts, toasted hazelnuts, chicory, and beef broth, to alliums, licorice, violets, and dandelion.  Alpines do well with other balanced ferments, like a good red blend.  I recommend a Bordeaux blend (there are some phenomenal ones hailing from the Columbia Valley as well) or a sexy Southern Rhone blend.   

If you are still unsure, go for a wine that tip-toes down the middle in regards to acidity, tannin, structure, and aromatics.  Remember when I had that random interview with world-renown chef, Albert Adriá?  When I asked him what he liked to pair with cheese, he said without hesitation, “Moscato.  With all food.”  Besides merely heeding advice from a palatal super-hero, I agree with him because Moscato (Muscat) is a relatively neutral grape, except that it is wildly aromatic.  Other wines that trend down the middle are Muscadet, like Melon de Bourgogne, Semillón, and Bobal.  Try them with an entire cheese board, and you will find it unlikely to have too many mouthfuls that are not agreeable.

As a cheese specialist and ardent wine enthusiast, I approach tastings under the notion that I could potentially experience oral fireworks and/or utter retro-nasal disgust.  You might think I would attempt to avoid tasting things that make me wince and gag, but, in fact, I look forward to them.  I will take cheese and wine education wherever I can get it, and it is this kind of grunt work that food and wine professionals conduct which enables us to save consumers from a mouthful of yuck.  Through my trials and studies, an ongoing list of classic and failsafe pairings which palates across the spectrum can appreciate continues to develop.  No need to spring for a coupling ill-equipped.  At a time when so many aspects of reality are conflicted, why not take a moment to indulge in an amiable sip and nibble to put you at sensorial ease?


Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  She also has the distinction of being one of forty-six people in the country with the ACS C.C.S.E. (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator) accreditation.  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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