Years ago, pairing wine with cheese was considered a no-brainer. You simply followed a rule that red wine goes with hard cheese and white wine with soft cheese. But that tradition has since become outdated. Now there's more chemistry and personal preference involved. Most cheeses make wine more palatable because their fat content coats the palate when you swallow. Taste receptors on the back of the tongue turn wine sweeter and more fruity when glazed with cheese. (Learn more in "The Simple Side of Food and Wine Pairing.")
Cheese ranges from fresh to hard, according to age. Young cheeses have a high water content and milky, delicate texture. As cheese ages, a process called affinage evaporates the moisture, leaving fat and protein that tend to infuse older cheeses with a rich, tasty tone.
In addition to drying the cheese, aging develops flavors. Bloomy-rind cheese like Brie remains gooey and spreadable with earthy notes. Other cheeses, such as Gruyere, acquire nutty flavors, while Blue cheeses get pungent from the mold in their veins. Like cheese, wine also runs the gamut from delicate to bold as the complexity correlates with age. Tannic red wines go well with rich, aged cheese because the tannins bind to the protein and fat. Cheese and wine from the same region usually complement each other. (Read on in "Summer Entertaining: Food and Wine Pairings for the Season.")
There are two strict rules for pairing wine and cheese. The first is to match acidity of the wine and cheese to create balance. Tart wines should pair with sharper cheeses, and mellow wines should be paired with creamier cheeses. The second rule is to match the power of the two. Do not let a strong wine overpower a mild cheese, and vice versa. Another tip, though not a rule, is to create a pairing by selecting products from the same region of the world. This brings the element of terroir, which describes how foods get their qualities from the earth and climate. Other factors to keep in mind are age of both the cheese and wine, the tannins of the wine, salt of the cheese and texture of both.
What follows is a guide for pairing wines with cheeses. Given the extensive variety of both products, this is only a partial list. But it should help get you started pairing and pouring your way to becoming a matchmaker. (Read "21 Unexpected and Totally Amazing Food and Wine Pairings.)
Fresh and Soft Cheeses
Fresh and soft cheeses love crisp whites, dry rosés, sparkling wine, dry aperitif and light-bodied reds with low tannins. These work best with cheeses, so, avoid big, tannic reds. Fresh and soft cheeses are classic, the usually consist of Ricotta, Mozzarella, Burrata, Brie, Camembert and Chevre. Pair these cheeses with any of these whites: Riesling, Moscato, Champagne, Cava, Chablis, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Beaujolais, Lambrusco and Sherry.
Semi-Hard Medium-Aged Cheeses
Semi-hard medium-aged cheeses have a firmer texture. They need a balance of acidity, fruit and tannin, and Havarti, Gruyere, Young Cheddar, Monterey Jack and Manchego are all good examples of these. It's best to pair these cheeses with Chardonnay, White Burgundy, White Bordeaux, Pinot Blanc, Rhone Blends, Champagne, Merlot or a Pinot Noir. For a fortified pairing, try a Vintage Port or a Tawny Port.
Stinky cheeses call for light-bodied wines with demure aromatics that complement rather than compete. Cheese that fall into this category are Epoisses, Taleggio and Morbier, and they pair well with Riesling, Sauternes, Pinot Noir, Red Burgundy and Gewurztraminer.
Blue cheeses require wines with both sass and sweetness to balance their bold flavors and salty, savory bodies. Cheeses on this panel include Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton and Cambozola. Each pairs well with a Ruby Red Port, a Tawny Port, a Sauternes, an Oloroso Sherry and Banyuls.
Harder cheeses team up well with full-bodied whites and tannic reds. Their nuttiness also works with oxidized wines wines like Sherry, while their saltiness connects with sweet wines. Cheeses like this include aged cheddar, aged Gruyere, Asiago, Manchego, aged Gouda. Be sure to pair these cheese with Red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauternes, Barolo, Zinfandel, Barbaresco, Rhone Blends, Red Port and Oloroso Sherry.
It's fun to open a bunch of bottles to sample and experiment with the matching of cheese and wine. The pairings are many, but if you must pour just one wine with assorted cheese, go with Riesling. It's low in alcohol, but the acidity, sweetness, tropical fruit notes and mineral expression make it the wine for all -- or at least most -- cheeses.