There is no more classic pairing than wine and cheese – but what makes these two quite different products such ageless companions? Is it their capacity to reflect their origins with each mouthful, or is it that their histories, both intertwined with culture and cuisine, have an irresistible appeal for cerebral foodies and wine lovers? Or perhaps it’s simply gastronomic: the contrasting pleasure of a wine’s sharp acidity cutting through the creamy fat of cheese – a truly hedonistic combination. Wine and cheese have so much in common, from production methods, to their capacity to improve with age, to how their quality is professionally assessed, that it’s no wonder they have been natural companions for millennia.
Wine and cheese are both agricultural products that have been transformed by fermentation. As finished products they both reflect the climate, origins and raw material (milk or grapes) used to make them. Just as we can differentiate aromas of lime or lychee when we taste Riesling or Gewurztraminer and note the brisk acidity of a cool-climate wine or the ripe fruit of a warm-climate wine, so when we taste a cheese we can tell from its aromas, flavours and mouthfeel if it came from cows (or goats, or sheep) that were fed on winter hay or summer grass.
Both wine and cheese offer an astounding variety of styles. In wine, we have sparkling, white, red, rosé, orange, sweet and fortified. Equally cheese can be made fresh, soft, semi-hard, aged and with added flavours like herbs or chili pepper. In wine as in cheese the maturation process offers endless possibilities of style. Both wine and cheese producers use barrels (whether it’s three, six or 12 months in a beechwood barrel for Greek Feta or 18 months in a new French oak barrel to produce a fine red Bordeaux), or biological ageing (mould-ripened Camembert or flor-aged Fino sherry). Cellaring is as important for the development of complex aromas in cheese as for wine: the temperature and humidity in the caves used to age Gruyère act on the cheeses in much the same way as the famous chalk cellars of Champagne affect the wines’ ageing process.
Conversely, just as there are dozens of cheeses which can be enjoyed with no ageing at all – fresh chevre, mozzarella or ricotta – there are wines which can and should be drunk young like Moscato d’Asti, Txakoli, or a Provence rosé. We’re familiar with wine appellations but perhaps less aware that there are nearly 300 protected designations of origin (PDOs) for cheeses, like the Brillat-Savarin of Burgundy, Ragusano of Sicily and the Kasseri of the Greek islands in the European Union alone.
Judging the quality of wine is similar to the way professionals judge the quality of cheese. The Academy of Cheese has its own structured approach to tasting which covers the appearance (visually and by feeling the cheese with your fingers), aromas (simple and complex) and conclusion based on the length of flavour, complexity and ripeness (for mould-ripened cheese).
In pairing them, many swear by the age-old rule of what grows together, goes together. Classic Italian reds are accompanied by a salty Parmigiano Reggiano or a sharp Pecorino, and ripe creamy Chaource is divine when paired with a local Champagne’s subtle brioche notes and crisp acidity. Cheese writer and educator Patrick McGuigan supports the same origin pairing. ‘One that is definitely true is Vin Jaune with a 20-month-old matured Comté – something about the hazelnut notes in the Comté that match with the oxidized sherry nutty notes you get in Jura – they just work together.’
McGuigan also notes the anomalies: ‘I had a young wrinkly Sinodun Hill, from Oxfordshire from Norton and Yarrow. It’s not an old cheese. It’s creamy and fluffy and almost a whipped cream texture –young and milky, lovely and light – almost citrusy. You might normally head towards Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, but I tried it once with White Port by Niepoort and it was beautiful. I don’t quite know why– the Port seemed to bring an almond flavour, and there was still some acidity and freshness that went with the goat’s cheese. It seems to break all the rules – they are not made near each other, for example – yet it definitely worked.
In ageability and complexity, heritage, tradition and the importance of site, cheese is an artisan product with a history as venerable and ancient as wine. As the legendary critic André Simon, wrote in his seminal book Cheeses of the World: ‘Milk is to cheese what grape juice is to wine.’