Wine and Cheese Pairing for Beginners: The Essential Guide

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Plate of assorted cheeses with olives, fruit and charcuterie on a wood table

Winemaking has a very long history. Based on archaeological evidence, it can be traced back to China, around 7000 6600 BCE. Archaeologists have found shards of pottery coated with the residue of a blend of fermented rice, honey, and fruit. There’s also evidence of wine in Western Asia dating back to 5400 5000 BCE. 

Gradually, wine made its way to Egypt. Evidence shows that ancient Egyptians fermented various grapes with other fruits such as figs, pomegranates, and dates. Greece developed wines after Egypt. There, archaeologists have discovered replica wine presses in tombs that date back to between 3000 2000 BCE. Then the Romans came along and refined the process even more. Wine became one of the bedrock elements of European cuisine and culture.

Today, pairing wine with food is a popular way to enhance and enjoy a meal. One of the most popular pairings is wine and cheese. While the history of the pairing isn’t known for sure, we do know that people have enjoyed regional wines with local cheeses (and local dishes, in general) for quite some time. 

So, what is it about the combination of wine and cheese that makes it so irresistible? Here, we’ll take a deeper look into the science behind wine and cheese pairing, how to craft an ideal pairing, and some classic options to try.

Why Do Wine and Cheese Pairings Work?

Many of the best-known food pairings consist of something astringent and something fatty. Combinations like pickles with burgers, green tea with sushi, and soda with potato chips work incredibly well together. So do wine and cheese. There’s a bit of science behind it. 

According to research, opposites really do attract. Astringents like tannins (compounds in wine and tea) bind with the proteins in your saliva, leaving your mouth feeling dry and rough. Fats coat the mouth, making it feel oily and slick. However, as you consume them together, alternating sips of wine with bites of cheese, the tannins play against the fats to create a more pleasant, balanced mouthfeel. While wine or cheese might be enjoyable on their own, the two enhance each other to create an even better experience.

Here are a few tips for wine and cheese pairing success:  

Wine and Cheese Pairing Guide: Key Tips and Advice

Match Intensities

Both wine and cheese run from mild to intense. In many cases, a big, bold wine like Cabernet Sauvignon can easily overwhelm a more delicate cheese like mozzarella. The wine’s tannins can also make younger cheeses taste chalky. You’ll have much better luck with a crisp, acidic white wine like Pinot Grigio or a light-bodied, low-tannin red wine like Pinot Noir. A Cabernet Sauvignon calls for an equally bold cheese, such as a sharp, crumbly aged cheddar. 

You’ll also want to pay attention to the alcohol content of your wine. Generally, wines with 14.5% ABV or higher go best with bolder, more intense cheeses, while wines with 12.5% ABV or lower work better with milder cheeses. Higher alcohol wines are more assertive, so they need a partner who can stand up to them. Likewise, lower alcohol wines are crisper and lighter. They tend to work magic with softer, creamier cheeses.

Tame the Funk with Sweetness

Funky, super pungent cheeses are among the most polarizing foods. Science can explain why some people love them, though. When you take a bite of Roquefort or Camembert, the aroma compounds go up the back of your nose. Your smell receptors tell you a ripe cheese seems stinky when smelled alone and only from the front of the sinuses. But your brain interprets the smell differently when you eat the cheese. The sensations on your tongue blend with the scent in the back of your sinuses to produce a complex mix of flavors, aromas, and mouthfeel. For many, the perception of the cheese alters, seeming richer and more satisfying when eaten. 

Super-sweet wines can also be polarizing. Some people enjoy them while others don’t. Regardless of your feelings toward either one, something magical happens when you put a funky cheese with a sweet wine. They create a beautifully balanced match made in heaven. The sweetness of the wine reins in the funkiness of the cheese. At the same time, the cheese lessens the perceived sweetness of the wine. 

Stay Regional

When it comes to finding the best pairings for wine and almost any food, consider the saying, “what grows together, goes together.” In other words, pair wines with foods — including cheeses — from the same regions. Some examples include Spanish Garnacha and Manchego, Barbaresco and Tallegio, and Beaujolais with French Gruyere. 

Firm and Nutty Pairs Well with Multiple Wines

What if you’re in a situation where you plan to offer a few different red and white wines? When in doubt, firm, nutty cheeses like Gruyere, Swiss, Emmental, and Gouda are safe bets. They have enough fat to help balance the tannins in red wines while still being soft enough to play nicely with white wines. The versatility of these cheeses allows them to please the palates of various wine lovers.  

Wine and Cheese Pairings for Beginners

Let’s take a quick look at some classic wine cheese pairing options:

Champagne and Brie

Pairing a classic French cheese with one of France’s quintessential wines might seem a bit cliché, but it works. Champagne’s acidity and refreshing bubbles cut through the  rich, creamy texture of brie, cleansing your palate so you can enjoy more. The buttery flavor of the cheese also goes perfectly with the toasty, brioche notes of the bubbly wine. 

Chablis and Goat Cheese

Chablis is a 100% Chardonnay wine made in the Chablis region of France (the northernmost wine district in the Burgundy region). Unlike other Chardonnay wines, it’s rarely oaky. It features high acidity, a delightful minerality, and notes of citrus and pear, all characteristics that make it a wonderful complement to a rich, earthy, almost barnyard-like goat cheese

Pinot Noir and Gruyere

As mentioned earlier, Gruyere is a beautifully nutty, firm (medium-firm to be more accurate) cheese. Little goes better with nuts than some fruit, and the cherry and raspberry notes of light- to medium-bodied Pinot Noir fill the bill. Both the wine and cheese have complexity, but neither overpowers the other. 

Chianti and Pecorino Toscano

The pairing of Chianti with Pecorino Toscano is a shining example of “what grows together goes together.” The tannins of the wine and the more fragrant and intense mature cheese stand up to one another. Chianti’s savory notes also bring out the herbal flavors of the cheese.   

Port and Stilton 

Remember how sweet and funky are brilliant if unlikely partners? One of the best examples of this match is the pairing of a sweet, bold, full-bodied Port with a pungent, salty, stinky Stilton. Even if you aren’t a fan of musty Stilton, you might find it isn’t all that bad when you pair it with the older variety of this super-sweet wine, and those who don’t like the cloying sweetness of an aged Port might find it more palatable when paired with Stilton. 

Wine Cheese Pairing: Find the Perfect Combinations for Any Occasion

The careful pairing of wines with different cheeses is more than an art form; it’s science! The combination of astringent wine with fatty cheese creates a more balanced flavor and mouthfeel. Pairing wine and cheese can create a more enjoyable overall eating experience. The examples we covered are only a handful of the delicious combinations. There are many more to explore. As you get the hang of matching the right wines with the right cheeses, you’ll quickly find yourself creating pairings you might never have thought of before. You may impress your friends, your guests, and even yourself!

If you’re looking for the perfect wine for your wine cheese pairings, JJ Buckley Fine Wines has you covered. With an extensive collection featuring thousands of high-quality wines and a knowledgeable team of buyers and Wine Specialists, we can help you find just what you need. Visit JJ Buckley to browse our selection today!