Wine and cheese: a natural pairing. But simple? Hardly. Cheese is tasted and described much in the way wine is: first by the visual impression, then by the aroma, then by the texture and mouthfeel, and finally by the lingering flavor. Traditional pairings dogmas—hard cheese with red wine, blue cheese with Port or Sauternes, local cheese with local wine—are overly simplistic and don’t always work. At worst, appreciation of both the cheese and the wine can suffer from a clumsy juxtaposition; at best, the right combination can be magical.
Cheese is as varied, as blatant or as subtle in its differences, as wine is. First there are the three main categories: cow’s milk cheese, sheep’s milk cheese, goat’s milk cheese. Then there are the textures, which occur in every category: soft, semisoft, semihard, firm, hard, hard/crumbly. There are the rinds and wrappings: edible/inedible, powdery or hard, natural to the cheese or applied. You also have your molds and veining, usually resulting in a blue cheese but sometimes introducing herbs. And don’t forget the origin of the cheese: what the milk-giving animals eat, and where, greatly affects the outcome. One Vermont cheesemaker used to provide, with each wheel of cheese, the dominant herb (rosemary, thyme) the sheep had been eating the day they gave the milk that cheese was made from. The cows on Menorca, a small, windswept island in the Mediterranean off the Spanish coast, give very salty milk due to the omnipresent sea salt on the grass they graze, which is obvious in the Mahon cheese that results.
So, how best to serve cheese and pair it with wine? We went to the cheesemaster, literally: Max McCalman, maître fromager at Picholine, near New York’s Lincoln Center. The restaurant, known for having the best cheese cart in New York and, possibly, in America, is the brainchild of chef/owner Terrance Brennan, who from the beginning liked the idea of serving multiple cheeses in the European style, listing them on the dessert menu. They started with 14 mostly European cheeses, but when customers kept coming back to try more cheeses (despite the fact that the original plan was to stick with those 14), Brennan and then-maitre d’ McCalman responded. Today, Picholine’s cart and cheese cave stock more than 60 cheeses, varying by season and availability.
Though Europeans, comfortable with the cheese course, tend to order specific cheeses on individual plates, most customers at Picholine order combination plates for the table—as a light meal, as an appetizer, or in the traditional course position between entrée and sweets. If the table has not yet ordered wine, McCalman or sommelier Gillian Ballance will suggest cheeses to go with a preferred wine, or a wine to go with the cheeses, depending upon the customer’s predilections. If the party is finishing a bottle at the end of a meal, McCalman guides them toward cheeses that will work with that wine; if the bottle is empty, other cheeses are matched to the desired after-dinner tipple, be it Port, Madeira or a dessert wine.
That kind of structure is a useful guideline for those of us planning to serve cheese at home. At the beginning of the meal, one wants to stay with a lighter wine, and consequently good choices are cheeses that work with white wines: milder goat cheeses with Loire Sauvignon Blanc, more complex ones with more mature Chenin Blanc, simple cow’s milk cheeses with lighter reds. Some cheeses will work with Champagne as well: a nice crumbly Parmesan, a rich creamy cheese from Brie.
Toward the end of the meal, if the remaining bottle is a white Burgundy, McCalman might suggest a Fontina d’Aosta; with Meursault a Garrotxa; with dry Riesling a firm English goat’s milk Ticklemore; with a Zinfandel a tangy farmhouse cheese like a Lancashire or a firm sweet blue like the Beenleigh Blue. Other red wines have their perfect matches too: several soft cow’s milk cheeses from France such as Reblochon and Roucuolons are lovely with Pinot Noir; many sheep’s milk cheeses work well with Rhône Syrahs, and a good English cheddaris delightful with Cabernet. If you’re interested in pouring a different wine with your cheese course than you served with your meal, the fortified-wine and dessert-wine categories come into play. If you like blue cheese, there are various ways to go: Port, Madeira, Sauternes, late-harvest Rieslings. Cabrales pairs well with a raisiny Pedro Ximenez sherry. A sumptuous, creamy cow’s-milk cheese from Burgundy, such as Epoisses, goes nicely with Sauternes, but so does a firm salty cheese like Mahon; and a subtle, rich cheese like Chimay au Lait Cru is helped by a botrytized wine such as Coteaux du Layon.
For a simple wine-and-cheese party, the best advice is to choose a relatively simple wine that pairs well with a wide range of cheeses: Gamay-based reds are a good place to start, with the second wine either a Loire white like Sancerre, or a Pinot Noir, depending on the slant of the cheese selection. To challenge your guests with more stimulating palate-teasers, choose interes ing wines and a selection of varied cheeses; the pairings can either contrast (sweet with salty, acidic to cut creaminess) or complement (sweet with sweet, lush with creamy).
At Picholine, cheese platters are arranged like a clock face, with the mildest cheese at 12 o’clock and building clockwise, through simple and subtle cheeses, to sharp cheese and triple-cream cheeses so that the cheese meant to go with Madeira or Sauternes is in about the 10 o’clock position. McCalman recommends no more than eight cheeses per platter, to avoid palate overload.
If you’re serious about cheese, it’s best to acquire it from a good cheese shop or gourmet store that is on top of its aging and storage. Often they will let you sample the cheese, which can be helpful in projecting potential wine partners for your party.
Experienced cheese tasters can tell a lot about a cheese from its look and its smell, but if you are unfamiliar with how a cheese is supposed to look or smell, it’s hard to judge: Is that white powdery coating the right color and consistency? Does it always smell like old socks? Buying your cheese from a reputable cheesemonger will keep you from wondering whether the cheese is supposed to taste the way it does, and let you trust the pairings decisions you come to. McCalman calls an understanding of cheeses’ various flavors and compatibility with wine a “life study”—something that wine enthusiasts can understand.