Wine, Cheese & Culinary Debauchery

They say that cheesemaking goes back as long ago as 9000 BC, when animals were first domesticated for their milk. Milk is turned into cheese by an enzyme known as rennet, originally found in the lining of calves' stomachs. Seems some ancient dude decided to carry his milk in such a skin, checked it out a little later and I'll-be-a-bull-bucker, he "discovered" cheese.

Like cheese, wine is the product of a natural fermentation, and at which point in history the first wine and cheese parties were being held is anybody's guess. But we do know that like the great cheeses of the world, the great wines of the world became clearly identified with specific regions of origin quite some time ago. There is Stilton from England, Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, Roquefort and …poisses de Bourgogne from France; just like there's Rioja from Spain, Chianti from Italy, and Bordeaux and Bourgogne from France. Hallelujah, pass the biscuits.

The relationship between wine and cheese, in this sense, is historical and sensory to the point of spirituality: you don't have to understand it to know it works. Certain wines are likely to taste better when consumed with the lush, solidified combination of milky sensations, acids, salt and amino acids of certain cheeses. Vice versa, the alcohol, acidity, sugar and tannin of certain wines not only helps the palate break down and digest the sensory components of certain cheeses, a well chosen wine can bring out distinctive, subtle flavors in a cheese otherwise not noticed without the wine.

So what are the best wine and cheese combinations? I don't think anything is "best," but there certainly are a lot of good, fun, practical matches. The subject of wine and cheese, of course, has been tackled in many places, and my own conclusions are based upon tastings upon tastings over the years, with small groups of friends, one, two, sometimes as much as a dozen at a time.

What are some of your favorites? To get us started, here are some of mine:

Chèvre (French or Regional American)
Goat's milk cheese is made everywhere in the world, but the historical match is Loire River Chèvre with the white wines vinified purely from Loire River grown Sauvignon Blanc. Combining Chèvre and Sauvignon Blanc is like a lesson in Wine/Food Matching 101: a mingling of sensory similarities -- the lemony acidity of the grape balancing the sharply acidic taste of goat's milk, and earthy flavor of Chèvre amplified by the minerally, often flinty and herbal taste of Sauvignon Blanc.

Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are the Loire's best known Sauvignon Blanc producing appellations, but you may find even better matches in lesser known, idiosyncratic growths such the strongly earthy whites of Cheverny, the citrusy light taste of Quincy, and the tart/silk juxtapositions found in Menetou-Salon.

Needless to say, Sauvignon Blancs and goat cheeses are made all over the world, and the combination generally works across the board, often with serendipity. I find, for instance, handcrafted Chèvres from Tennessee, Georgia, California and the Big Island of Hawaii to be generally milder in acidity and earth tones than French Chèvres like Valencay and Crottin de Chavignol, yet almost perfect with the more mildly acidic, floral and fruit driven Sauvignon Blancs of, say, California. For the fruity yet more strongly herbal style of Sauvignon Blanc grown in New Zealand, you can take your pick: French Chèvres tend to do a better job of rounding out the tart, green qualities of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but domestic Chèvres tend to delineate the fruity, often mildly sweet qualities of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.

And with a little more brevity:

Herbed or Peppered Chèvres (U.S.)
The ever-popular variations of Chèvres -- coated with everything from cracked black pepper (Laura Chenel's classic Peppered Chèvre) to earthy red peppers (Bonnie Blue's Southwest Chèvre), and from pungent Italian herbs (rosemary, oregano and dried garlic) to fragrant variations of "French" mixtures (thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, sage, bay, lavender, et al.) -- drastically alter your choice of wine. Cultural matches -- Chianti Classico, Montepulciano or Montalcinos with Italian herbed Chèvres, and Bourgogne Rouge, Pinot Noir or Chinon with French herbed Chèvres -- are both logical and spot-on. With peppers, it can be even more fun: what can be more predictably delicious with black peppercorn goat cheeses than black peppery California Petite Sirahs or Zinfandels? With pungent, earthy Southwest style red chile coated cheeses, peppery yet perfumed Syrahs from anywhere in the world?

Feta (Greece)
Although we do not really sit down with plates of plain Feta, we use this quiveringly soft, briny, earthy goat's milk cheese often enough in our dishes to consider the sensory ramifications of its pointedly sharp and salty taste. As with any food high in acidity and saltiness, the natural matches are wines with moderate degrees of residual sugar and/or fruitiness. Off-dry Rieslings (particularly zesty Mosel-Saar-Ruwers) and Chenin Blanc based Loire River whites (Vouvray for fruitiness, Savennieres for dryness) are the easy ones; although since many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as well as Pinot Gris bottlings are finished with whispers of residual sugar, they do a surprisingly good job as well of rounding out the tart, salty taste of Feta.

Havarti (Denmark)
Here's a match rarely entering the minds of wine and cheese lovers. Whereas Chèvres are tart and earthy, Havarti is soft, creamy, almost sweet and springy with fruitiness -- a natural with most California grown styles of Chardonnay precisely because of their creamy, lower acid, soft, almost sweet, springy, fruitiness.

Gouda & Smoked Gouda (Netherlands)
From the Dutch city of Gouda, this famous cheese is firm yet very creamy in taste, developing a crunchy (from protein crystals), caramel-like sweetness as well as faintly nutty, mushroom-like notes well before it hits the market. Fruity California Chardonnays are an easy match; the sweet vanillin, French oak notes manufactured by more serious producers made all the more lush and textured by the cheese. But an even better match may be the Chardonnay based whites of France with Smoked Gouda. And it doesn't have to be high priced Meursaults or Montrachets, because moderately scaled appellations like Petit Chablis, Saint-Aubin, M‚con and Pouilly-Fuissé do a perfectly fine job of bringing out the nutty, earthy nuances of Smoked Gouda.

Bufala Mozzarella (Italy)
By itself, this soft, round cheese, packed in its own liquified whey -- at their best, enjoyed within days after production -- invites any soft, round, fruity white of low to moderate acidity. Pinot Grigio and Frascati are naturals, but so are most Chardonnays from around the world.

Smoked Mozzarella (Italy)
For me, the smoky variations of Mozzarella positively scream for round, fruit driven Chardonnays fermented and aged in distinctively toasted barrels. Char on char, like blonde on blonde; wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. Yet while sharper on the palate, the flinty qualities of French grown Sauvignon Blancs always mix and mingle easily with the smoky flavors of this style of Mozzarella; the wine's acidity accentuating the cheese's fresh, milky flavor and texture with contrast rather than similarity.

Brie & Camembert (France)
I've found that cheese and wine lovers are willing to go in at least three different directions with these lush, pungent, often fickle soft ripened cheeses: Fruity New World Chardonnays match the soft, buttery texture of these cheeses; whereas stonier, terroir driven Old World Chardonnays (from Burgundy as well as South Africa) round out both the creamy and earthy notes of these cheeses. Sauvignon Blancs (from anywhere in the world), on the other hand, offer the minerally/herbal notes to moderate the earthy, ammonia-like notes of Bries and Camemberts, on top of a sharply contrasting acidity that freshens the palate, keeping the runny, buttery taste of Bries and Camemberts from tiring the senses.

Triple Crème(France)
Here begins a life of decadence; at least for me, having always been enthralled by how well some of the biggest, oakiest, and correspondingly most expensive California Chardonnays match with the richest and most lavish of soft ripened cheeses -- Triple Crèmes such as the plump, white crusted Brillat-Savarin, the high octane Boursault, or the lush, sensual Explorateur. In this case, these over-the-top cheeses (defined by its having at least 75% butterfat) merely share the similar excess of rich, fat creaminess that make Chardonnays so attractive, yet are just mild enough in flavor to allow the sweet apple-like fruitiness of the grape shine on through.

Boursin (France)
The intrinsic spiciness of classic Pinot Noirs is absolute dynamite with one of the most flavorful of world's seasoned cheeses: ultra-creamy, snowy white Boursin from France's Normandy region. Boursin comes in two flavors -- "Garlic & Fine Herbs," and "Pepper." I particularly like the lush, fruit forward, sweetly perfumed styles of American grown Pinot Noirs for the pungently herbed, peppery tastes of these cheeses; while Boursin is the only cheese I know with the softness to match the lush yet snappy texture of American grown Pinot Noirs, yet retain the intensity of flavor to consistently smooth out the any excess tannin while amplifying the grape's fragrant complexities.

Manchego (Spain)
Once fromagers begin aging their products for six months or longer, cheeses such as the sheep's milk Manchego become deeper, firmer and more complex: essentially becoming cheeses for red wines, given the depth derived during red wine production (i.e. fermentation with skins and longer aging processes). Fresh, tangy, yet mature, mildly salty, faintly sweet, crunchy Manchego is one cheese that adapts to almost any red of medium to high tannin, lower acidity and some degree of wood aging. In this sense, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux style blends will seldom be difficult matches, although Manchego does have a tendency to take a little stuffing out of of slightly sharper, more lightly pigmented reds like Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and some of the simpler Sangiovese based wines of Tuscany.

Parmigiano-Reggiano (Italy)
Because of its high amino acids, we usually think of Parmigiano as more of a condiment than an eating cheese; which is a shame, because there is nothing like shavings of Parmigiano with glasses of deep, sturdy, aggressively oak aged reds made from any of the Bordeaux varieties (Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon) bottled as varietals or blends. Of course, deeper, denser Tuscan reds such as Brunello respond readily to the deep, fruity/nutty, crystallized taste of Parmigiano, which brings out a sweetness in oak and tannin laden wines not otherwise perceived by the palate.

Cheddars (International)
Practically all the world's great aged Cheddars -- from English Farmhouse to Canadian Diamond, and domestics like the Sharps of Vermont and Tillamook in Oregon -- possess even firmer, tangier, but also deeper caramelized butter flavors that do amazing jobs of smoothing out the rough, boisterous edges of young to middle aged reds manufactured from Cabernet Sauvignon and other high extract, generous tannin grapes. By the same token, the sharp, saturated taste of many Cheddars may smother the nuances of the same reds if well matured (cellared fifteen years or longer), but how many of us are actually drinking this on a regular basis anyway?

Blue Cheeses (International)
Generally speaking, the salty, sharp, and yes, moldy, taste of the great blue veined cheeses of the world respond best to the great sweet wines of the world -- easy as pie, and as pleasing as pineapple sauce on a ham. After that, the preferences become personal. Many swear by French Sauternes with France's ewe's milk Roquefort (most other blue cheeses are made from cow's milk), although I like the somewhat rounder, smoother, nevertheless rich and tangy blue cheese quality of Iowa's Maytag Blue even better with these golden, full bodied blends of late picked Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Denmark's Danablu is just as silky as the aforementioned, but my instinct is to pull out a zestier, flowery, dried apricot-like late harvest Riesling (German, Californian, or Australasian) rather than a Sauternes to match its somewhat sharp, briny bite. The Brits reach for a well aged Vintage or Tawny Port when they unwrap their Stilton -- magnificently deep, creamy, yet "mellow" in its blue-cheesiness -- although I have been surprised by how equal to the match with fortified reds Italy's Gorgonzola can be, for all its mild, buttery, crumbly sensations.

In fact, Gorgonzola with more moderately alcoholic, lusciously sweet reds such as Italy's Recioto di Valpolicella, Banyuls from France, and the occasional Late Harvest Zinfandels from California -- so good together, why don't you just go ahead and shoot me where I sit with my plate and wine-stained fingers!

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at

Back to Randy's Culinary Wine & Food Adventures.