Come aperitivo hour, the cheese board is often thrown together with cling-wrapped scraps of cheese from last week's soiree and served with whatever vino is in the cupboard. But you, your palate and your friends deserve better. Not to mention doing justice to those who have produced good wines and cheeses. Let's throw out a home truth here: just because a cheese is delicious and a wine is lovely, it can't be assumed they'll get along.
As with food pairings, a well-considered drink match can bring out the personality of your chosen cheese. There are a few guidelines to help smooth out this process and ensure you have a good time, but, of course, if you're into wildly experimental flavours, then feel free to ignore this and go nuts.
For most of us, though, we're looking for a smooth drinking partner to befriend our cheese. To find one, you'll need your drink to harmonise with the texture and flavour of a cheese. This means assessing a drink's favourable attributes, such as texture, effervescence, body, smell, flavour and temperature.
When deciding on a pairing, we suggest tuning into what you feel like drinking, rather than reaching for any alcoholic beverage you find loitering in the fridge or drinks cupboard.
Still unsure? Let's unpack this. Here's how to pair cheese and drinks like a pro in five easy steps.
- Sip the beverage and allow it to coat your mouth.
- Take a nibble of the cheese.
- Sip the beverage again.
- Now, swirl both around in your mouth together.
- Breathe out through your nose to encourage the retronasal effects. Side note: if you're wondering what a retronasal effect is, it's a way of tasting via your olfactory system.
Is it a match?
What flavours come to you? Do the flavours, and thus the pairing, work? If it does, congratulations, you've met your match. If it doesn't feel right, let it go. In life and cheese, always trust your intuition.
First up, we must, unfortunately, stick an oversized novelty pin in the myth that wine matches easily with cheese. Pop! It doesn't. Like any relationship, there's light and shade. Wine, with its complexity of flavour, is in fact one of the most complex beverages to pair with cheese and can easily clash or be flat-out repulsive.
As with food pairings, the simplest approach is to look for similarities in taste and texture, or contrasts that enhance the character and strength of the cheese. Cheeses that go better with wine usually have a balanced flavour profile - for example, salty and sweet - and aren't going to be bossed around by the wine.
One of the challenges comes from our culture of eating cheese at the end of a meal. By this stage, we have peaked at full-bodied red wine, making it difficult to match with cheese. It's a hard place to come back from.
If you like to play it safe, but are determined to drink wine, go for white wine or sparkling, which both have higher acidity and clean flavours.
White wine and rosé
White wine and rosé can be more forgiving than red because they have fewer tannins and astringency and are lighter in alcohol. They are also more acidic and sharper in flavour, which provides balance to rich, salty cheeses.
It's a match!
- Aromatic whites such as gewurztraminer (sweet, slightly spicy): washed rinds
- Dry whites such as verdejo: mild, hard and nutty cheeses such as beaufort.
- Fruit-forward wines such as sweet riesling: alpines - their rich, dense flavours of nuts, toast and grass emphasise riesling's floral, delicate perfume and crisp finish.
- Full-bodied whites such as chardonnay: young chèvre such as Holy Goat's La Luna, mild and fresh cheeses such as fromage frais and fromage blanc (acidic and bright with a crisp finish).
- Rosé and orange natural wines: havarti, fresh cheeses such as buffalo mozzarella and ricotta.
- Jura wine: comté (what grows together, goes together). This pairing of Switzerland-adjacent products brings cool-climate flavours to the palate.
Sparkling wines such as champagne, cava and prosecco all have delightfully tongue-tingling bubbles, which add another dimension and sophistication to the palate. They prance around particularly well with creamy cheeses, including blues. This is down to how the butterfat in the cheese initially coats the tongue, before the bubbles wash over and remove that coating, acting as a pleasing palate-cleanser. Bubbles also match with harder and low-moisture cheeses including alpines and parmigiano reggiano.
It's a match!
- Australian sparkling wine: fresh young chèvre
- Cava: young le gruyère
- Champagne and sparkling wines: pecorino, aged gouda and manchego (perhaps a surprising match to some, but the fizz bounces off the grittiness of the cheese), dreamy creamies such as delice de bourgogne (indulgent creamy cheeses coat the mouth and finish with a light, lactic kick before being washed away by bubbles), creamy blues such as Cashel blue and gorgonzola
- Prosecco: mascarpone, mozzarella
- Champagne: langres. The concave well on the top of the cheese can cradle champagne, brandy or chablis. Simply pour 125ml (1/2 cup) on top of the langres and watch the cheese start to bubble. Serve immediately with chilled champagne.
Apologies in advance, because what we're about to say will shake a few people's core beliefs. Red wine and cheese are akin to a bad Netflix series with a good promo. They seem to have all the elements for a quality production, but actually, it's a deflating experience. Red wines often contain a lot of tannins, which clash with cheese and overpower it, resulting in bitter, metallic or mousey flavours. As cheese is salty, this amplifies the bitterness. Red wines are an especially bad match for creamy cheeses.
If you must drink a red, stick to cleaner, lighter reds and choose cheeses with bold flavour profiles to help mind the gap. Go for blues, washed rinds or firm and aged cheeses such as parmigiano reggiano.
It's a match!
- Chilled reds: brie and other dreamy creamies with high acidity and brightness.
- Pinot noir: alpines such as gruyère, camembert, brie, smoked gouda. This wine has soft tannins and high acidity, so can pair with some cheeses. It has red fruit and spice flavours.
- Tannic red wines and blue cheese deliver ratty flavours. Arrange a friend to call with a fake emergency, so you can escape this bad match.
The sweet, lip-smacking dessert wine family includes sweet wines, such as sauternes, as well as varieties of sherry, port and madeira. Their mostly sweet and viscous attributes are a magnetising force for creamy blues and milky alpine cheeses, with the wine swirling well with the intensity of blue mould, salt and spice. The opposing flavours and texture balance out to create a velvety journey we are all on board for.
It's a match!
- Amontillado sherry: nutty, aged alpines such as beaufort and gruyère - these make a harmonious pairing of toffee-on-toffee as well as nutty-with-nutty.
- Fino sherry: manchego, feta
- Moscatel sherry: valeden, manchego
- Moscato: gorgonzola dolce with biscotti
- Tawny port: hard cheeses such as manchego, p'tit basque and cheddars, blue cheeses such as stilton, roquefort and gorgonzola - the port's fruit-and-nut sweetness balances well with the spicy, salty and savoury characteristics of blue cheese.
- Tokaji (Hungarian dessert wine): roquefort
- Sauternes: roquefort. Both the wine and cheese have high minerality (hello, umami paradise!).Roquefort has an intense blue and salty flavour with a fatty texture, due to the sheep's milk, which is softened by the luscious texture and sweetness of the wine. Serve this tactile, textural pairing to stoke a little romance.
Beer might not be an obvious romantic counterpart for cheese, but can end up being a date that ends in great mates with its reliable, forgiving and balancing qualities. Matching beer is similar to matching wine, but instead of aiming for a complementary or harmonising flavour, you're looking for balance. You are aiming to balance the acidity, sweetness and/or bitterness of the beer with the cheese. Beer also has the bonus of effervescence with the bubbles creating a sensation on the tongue that, when combined with cheese, elevates the flavours of individual ingredients. Effervescence also helpfully cuts through the fat of cheese to cleanse your palate.
Like wine, beer comes with its own scientific rabbit holes that enthusiasts can merrily disappear down, but the ancient beverage can essentially be separated into two very broad categories: ale and lager.
Ale (stronger-tasting beer)
It's a match!
- Dark ales, stouts and porters: aged gouda, blues such as roquefort and stilton - stout's heavy earthiness pairs particularly well with the creamy richness of stilton.
- Farmhouse ales: cheddars - the buttery, grassy tang of cheddars partners with the sourness of farmhouse ales.
- Full-bodied ales: manchego, stilton
- Indian pal ales: taleggio, hard, crumbly cheeses such as cheddars and parmigiano reggiano.
- Light-bodied ales: brie or any young cheese.
- Pal ales and hoppy beers: cheddars - their bold, buttery, grassy and acidic flavours go well with hoppy, toasty and strong ales.
- Hoppy IPAs and intense stouts with bright, lactic cheeses such as fromage blanc - the flavour of the ales is too overpowering.
Gooey baked camembert
It's the wooden box in which you serve the cheese that makes it fancy. Essentially, instant cheese fondue. These recipes are molten and melty in all the right ways. People may think you're showing off. Let them!
We recommend using the best camembert available to you for this recipe. We love ones from Normandy for their barnyard funk. Industrial versions of camembert will taste bland and don't melt as well, and they'll often ooze a pool of oil, which isn't the sultry look we're going for here, especially on those hot date nights.
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 250g Normandy Camembert, in its box
- 2 tbsp cider
- 4-5 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
- freshly ground black pepper
- crusty bread, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 200°C conventional.
- In a small saucepan, blanch the garlic cloves in boiling water for one to two minutes, until softened. Drain and slice the garlic.
- Remove the wax paper from the cheese and return it to the box, with the lid on the bottom. Pierce the cheese in six places with a small, sharp knife and gently push the garlic into the cheese.
- Spoon over the cider, making sure it seeps into the cheese, and scatter the thyme over the top. Season with freshly ground pepper, to taste.
- Wrap the base of the box tightly in foil or tie with string to keep the box together. Place the cheese on a baking tray and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until hot and bubbling and the cheese centre is liquid.
- Serve immediately, dipping the crusty bread into the molten cheese.
Serves 4 as a starter.
Baked le duc vacherin
This recipe is based on the famous whole baked mont d'or from France that is strictly seasonal. Le duc vacherin is the closest thing you can get to it in Australia, made from the rich milk from the same region and girdled in a ring of spruce bark harvested by hand in the summer months. Baking the cheese activates the spruce bark, adding forest/pine notes to the cheese. Smother it on potatoes or serve with cornichons and cured meats for dipping as a centrepiece at a winter dinner party.
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 200g le duc vacherin, in its box
- 1 sprig of rosemary, leaves picked
- 1-2 tbsp white or red wine
- freshly ground black pepper
- crusty bread or boiled potatoes
- salami and/or cured ham
- Preheat the oven to 200°C conventional.
- In a small saucepan, blanch the garlic clove in boiling water for one to two minutes, until softened. Drain and cut the clove into four to six thin slices.
- Remove the plastic cheese packaging and return the cheese, uncovered, to the wooden box.
- Pierce the top of the cheese four to six times with a small, sharp knife. Gently push the garlic and rosemary leaves into the holes, then pour over the wine, making sure it seeps into the cheese, and season with freshly ground pepper, to taste.
- Wrap the base and top of the Vacherin tightly with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil on top and bake for a further five to 10 minutes, until hot and bubbling.
- Serve with crusty bread or boiled potatoes to scoop up the cheese, alongside cornichons, salami and/or cured ham.
Serves 4 as a starter.
Sticky vinegar chorizo with feta
This makes a sexy side or could be moved to brunch or antipasto hour, if you wanted. Buttered sourdough as a shovel and for mopping is mandatory.
- 2 cured chorizo, cut diagonally into 5mm thick slices
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 60ml (1/4 cup) sherry vinegar
- 100g Greek barrel-aged feta
- crusty sourdough, to serve
- Place the chorizo in a cold frying pan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, for three to five minutes, until starting to colour. Add the sugar and vinegar and cook, stirring, for a further three to five minutes, until the vinegar is reduced and sticky.
- Transfer the chorizo to a serving bowl, crumble over the feta and serve with the sourdough.
Serves 2-4 as a side or snack.
Galotyri with blistered cherry tomatoes and mixed herbs
Galotyri can be a little hard to track down but can easily be replaced with goat's curd or labneh. We make at least a double portion of the tomatoes, especially when they're cheap in late summer, so we can eat this a few days in a row. The charriness of the tomatoes adds a deep, sweet complexity that dances with the creaminess and acidity of the mixed milk Galotyri.
- 500g mixed cherry truss tomatoes
- 60ml (1/4 cup) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 4 sprigs of oregano
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- 1/4 bunch of basil, leaves picked, plus extra to serve
- sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
- 180g Galotyri
- sliced seeded baguette, to serve
- Preheat the oven to 200°C fan-forced.
- Place the tomatoes in a baking dish (make sure the tomatoes fit snugly). Combine the olive oil, sugar, garlic and herbs in a small bowl, then drizzle the mixture over the tomatoes. Season to taste.
- Transfer to the oven and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tomatoes bubble and blister. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
- Spread the Galotyri over the base of a large shallow serving dish. Top with the hot tomatoes and a few extra basil leaves, if you like, and spoon over a generous amount of the tomato juices in the dish. Serve with slices of seeded baguette to dip in immediately.
Serves 4 as a side.
Eighties cheese straws
A twizzle of puffed pastry with cheese - a totally primo party starter circa 1985! These take two seconds to make. We mix and match our cheese topping for this recipe - it's great for using up those off-cuts that are skulking at the back of the fridge.
- 2 sheets of frozen puff pastry, just thawed
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 100g (1 cup) parmigiano reggiano, finely grated
- 60g halloumi, finely grated
- sea salt flakes
- 50g unsalted butter, melted
- 1 tsp chilli oil
- 1/2 bunch of chives, finely sliced
- Preheat the oven 200°C conventional. Line a large baking tray with baking paper.
- Brush the pastry sheets with some of the beaten egg and sprinkle over the paprika. Combine the cheeses and sprinkle over the top, then use a rolling pin to roll over the cheese and press it into the pastry.
- Fold the pastry sheets in half and roll again with the rolling pin to firmly enclose the cheese layer. Cut the pastry sheets into 2cm wide strips, then twist each strip and place on the prepared tray. Brush with the remaining beaten egg, then sprinkle with salt and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden brown.
- Meanwhile, to make the chilli butter, combine the butter, chilli oil and chives in a bowl. Remove the cheese straws from the oven, brush with the chilli butter and serve.
This is an edited extract from The Best Things in Life are Cheese, by Ellie and Sam Studd. Pan MacMillan Australia. $17.99.
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