Have you ever wondered why wine and cheese taste so good together? Is it one of those social norms that we’ve all grown accustomed or is there real science behind this perfect match? As with most wine related phenomena, the magic of its pairing with cheese is good old chemistry. It starts with recognizing two very important qualities that are found in wine: tannin (found in grape skins, stems and seeds, this causes your mouth to feel a dry, chalky sensation, akin to drinking black tea) and acidity (this is what causes your mouth to pucker and causes you to salivate when you drink certain wines). Cheese, by nature, is creamy, fatty and also contains proteins which when consumed, coat the palate of your mouth. Your taste buds enjoy this sensation of oily, creaminess at first, but then crave balance, and both tannin and acidity help cut through the fat coating to “cleanse your palate”. So if you’ve been indulging a bit too long at the cheese table, you may even crave wine!
The same is true in reverse. Wines that have a high level of tannin can be harsh to drink and overpower some of the subtle flavors in a wine. When a tannic wine is consumed with cheese, however, the proteins and fat in cheese start to break down the tannin and coat your palate protecting it from the harshness of the tannin. This is akin to why people add milk or cream to their black tea in England. If you want to conduct a fun science experiment, start with a bold, tannic red wine. After tasting it, drop a cube of hard cheese into it and let it sit for a minute or two. Then re-taste the wine; I guarantee you’ll notice that it tastes smoother. You’ll also notice that the hard cheese has turned purple as it has been absorbing some of the tannin from the wine!
White wines don’t have tannin, so why do they also pair well with cheese? Many white wines have good acidity, which is an astringent and also helps cut through creaminess. Crisp acidity, and effervescence that is found in sparkling wines is also a great counterpart to salty foods, which is why it pairs nicely with salty cheeses. While some experts believe wine and cheese should be paired according to region or strength, I have a few general guidelines that are simple to follow and lead to matches made in heaven:
- Pair creamy cheese with high acid wines like a sauvignon blanc or a riesling.
- Soft, fresh, cheeses pair nicely with a fruity wine (pinot grigio, chardonnay).
- Rich, heavy cheese (like Havarti or feta) pair well with a light red wine or full bodied white, like a Gewurztraminer.
- Highly tannic wine pair well with hard cheese, as you now know from the experiment I noted above.
- And for a sweet and savory finish, try a strong, blue-veined cheese with a dessert wines (port, sauternes).
So the next time you’re enjoying a beautiful cheese course consider wine over other alternatives and when you’re a few glasses of wine in at a party don’t forget to say cheese! For more Wine 101, follow my "Ask the Somm" posts on WhichWinery.