September is officially California Wine Month, Fall, when we have back-to-back-to-back gatherings with friends and family for any and every reason, is officially-ish Wine and Cheese season. Whether we're back to school and work with friends, tailgating on the weekends, celebrating holidays, or as we've come to appreciate in the last two years, just being physically present with other people, a bottle or two or three of wine with a cheese board is the fastest, easiest, and cleanest way to set up, feed people, and keep conversation (and people!) buzzing.
How to Pair Wine and Cheese, Basic Guidelines
Wine and cheese pairings are not as formulaic as grouping all cheeses into a few broad categories then pairing one variety of wine to each category. There are many variables to take into consideration on both sides of the equation. Within categories of cheese, there are factors like type of milk, region because yes cheese can express terroir like wine!, added cultures, aging process, length of aging, and more that affect the cheeses' flavors, fragrances, and textures.
The same is true for wines. There are hundreds of types of grapes (varietals), and wines can vary across an enormously broad spectrum of alcohol content, dryness vs. sweetness, aromas, tannins and so much more.
Does it seem like a lot to consider? It is! But before we address all those factors, you can get away with just some general guidelines you can apply to most wine and cheese pairing situations without having to get into all the nuances.
Choose a star, either wine or cheese
Sparkling wine and light, acidic whites pair with almost everything
Very oaked, low-acid, and highly tannic wines are harder to pair
Match intensity, balance flavors
What grows together, goes together
Wine and Cheese Pairing Guideline #1: Choose a Star, Either Wine or Cheese
Choose the star of the show, either the cheese or the wine, and let the other be the supporting cast. As we know in other types of situations, having two or more elements competing for attention can end up in a dramatic clash, and this definitely applies to cheese vs wine. If you and your crowd are more cheese/food people, then choose interesting cheeses first, and pick subtle whites or one white and one light-bodied red wine that won't steal the spotlight from the cheese. If your guests are more interested in the wines, build a cheese board around a few mild- to medium-flavored cheeses that won't overpower any of the wines. Save very strong washed-rind and blue cheeses for another time when you know you will be serving a very specific wine made for those cheeses.
Wine and Cheese Pairing Guideline #2: Sparkling Wine and Light, Acidic Whites Pair with Almost Everything
Sparkling wine, sauvignon blanc, light-bodied unoaked chardonnay, or other light bright wine is always a good go-to choice for any cheese. Though you wouldn't immediately think of cheese as "acidic" because it's usually rich and creamy, cheese does in fact have an intrinsic acidity derived from the milk and the fermentation process. What you’re looking for in the wine is some degree of acidity to cut through the richness of the cheese, as well as match the acidity. So based on the two previous guidelines, if you are building a big, beautiful cheese board and will be serving only one type of wine, go with a white wine. My default, never fail California option thus far has been California sauvignon blanc that leans more toward France in style rather than New Zealand.
Wine and Cheese Pairing Guideline #3: Very Oaked, Low-Acid, and Highly Tannic Wines are Harder to Pair
Oak, low-acid, and high tannins describe a lot of red wines that we like to drink in the right food situations like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and zinfandel, so choose reds with a little more care. The buttery, fatty, richness of cheese really brings out tannins making wines taste even more tannic in a not-so-pleasant way. So a big, powerful Cab might be a better choice for a different night, or maybe with cheese board that features a lot of cured meats and other charcuterie as well. That being said, if a big powerful wine is the star of the table, a more subdued cheese board with mellow cheeses and crackers might be the best way to let the wine have its moment.
Wine and Cheese Pairing Guideline #4: Think of How You Balance Flavors in Food to Help Guide Choices
It helps to think about what else you would want to eat with the cheese to help guide you toward the best wine to pair with the cheese. For example, blue cheese is always perfectly offset with a rich, intense honey, and likewise, pairs well with a rich, sweet dessert wine like port or a late harvest semillon. Match intensity, balance flavors.
Wine and Cheese Pairing Guideline #5: What Grows Together Goes Together
"What grows together goes together" is a classic adage that highlights the idea that literally, wine and cheese (or other foods) grown and made in the same place will express similar qualities of the soil, sun, and culture of the locale. Given they fall within basic guidelines above, the wine and cheese will perfectly match each other when it comes to nuances in flavor.