The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Jungle Gym of Wine & Food Pairings

Posted on | April 21, 2010 | Written by Francesco Vigorito | No Comments

Those of us who have experienced a sublime wine and cheese pairing know exactly what I’m talking about: some combinations are mind-blowing and leave you yearning for more, even after you’ve finished a half pound of cheese and a bottle of wine. Others, regrettably, make you feel like scraping your tongue. In this writing, however, I want to concentrate on the really good, and not the egregiously ugly.

Why is it that wine and cheese can be so good together?  One reason may be that either component on its own is a delight in its own right. However, the sum of both is far greater than either than its parts, and so we need to look more deeply into the ineffable chemistry of the pair.

Cheese is composed of water, animal fat and protein, and wine is made up of water, alcohol, acid, sugar and tannins (for the purpose of this article, we’re just looking at the tannins found in reds).  When a science/wine/food nerd-type like me looks at this ingredient set, I can’t help but notice how perfectly these two meld together.  In part, they match one another because they both come from simple ingredients, shaped by terroir, blended by artists, changed by age and created by microbes. In many ways, cheese is the solid, protein version of wine. Chemically, they’re kind of the perfect foil for each other.

Imagine yourself drinking a bottle of red wine—or better yet go pop one right now.  You will notice that most red wines will leave your mouth feeling dry with an astringent after feel.  This “dryness” is due to the tannins in the wine.  The tannins in the wine coagulate your salivary proteins that are secreted by the pores in your mouth.  Without saliva lubricating your palate, this astringent feeling comes into play.  Now let’s add cheese into the equation.

Remember that I said that cheese was mostly fat and protein.  When you take a bite of cheese and then take a sip of wine, the tannins now have another protein to coagulate with, other than just your salivary protein.  The tannins bind to the cheese protein instead of your saliva, giving the wine a much smoother and rounder sensation in your mouth. And just like magic, the wine and cheese anomaly has been exposed.

White wines also make excellent pairings because of their acidity.  Most whites should be paired with lighter and tangier cheese so as not to mask the flavor of the wine.  The acid in white wines works to cleanse the palate and prime your palate for the next bite.  The acids will also make the cheese taste a bit sweeter because the wine’s acids occupy your acid receptors on your tongue and leaving your sweet receptors open to some of the cheese’s sweeter nuances.

Wine and cheese are like the jungle gym of wine/food pairings.  Reds, whites, sweet, and sparkling wines all can pair nicely with cheese; the combinations are nearly endless.   Just remember that you want to pair strong cheeses with fuller, more intense wines and lighter cheeses with fresh, light wines, for example, Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc with goat cheese. Generally speaking, hard cheeses are more intense, and softer cheeses are less intense because hard cheeses are aged longer allowing water to evaporate, thus intensifying the cheese’s flavor.  Remember to pair cheeses with their native wines—Spanish cheese with Spanish wine, Italian cheese with Italian wines.  While the basic rule is “what grows together goes together,” you can mix and match, but nothing can beat a traditional combination.  Here are some guidelines:

  • Aged pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano with most Italian reds( Brunello, Chianti, or Barolo, for example)
  • Aged cheddar with American Cabernet
  • Light cheddar with a full Chardonnay
  • Mozzarella with light whites
  • Gouda, Chevre,  creamy cheddar and brie with Champagne
  • Amarone with gorgonzola

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