High on the Vine: How to Pair Wine & Cheese

Everybody loves a good wine and cheese party. But are the pairings ever right? Tim Gaddis of Star Provisions offers insight.

Who doesn’t love a wine and cheese party? The two are a classic pairing, like peanut butter and jelly or Ina Garten and scones. But in the same way that there are millions of wines in the world, the same can be said for cheese. Goats, cows, and sheep produce varying textures and varieties of cheese all across the world. It’s dizzying to the think about and even more intimidating when you walk into a cheese shop.

Hope, though, that you’ve at least walked into Tim Gaddis’s cheese shop. A former cop who decided to trade his gun for Gouda and study at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Gaddis started working as a cheesemonger at Westside’s Star Provisions in 2003. Now approaching his ten-year anniversary, Gaddis is still behind the counter, and earlier this week he met with me to help simplify the wine/cheese pairing process and be a blessing to all such future parties.

What are some overarching principles people should keep in mind when pairing cheese and wine?
Drink what you like. Personally, I think Roquefort cheese and Sauternes [a sweet, dessert wine from France] are the height of cheese and wine pairings. That is perfect and everything else falls below that. It’s the fatty, spicy, creaminess of the Roquefort with the honey-pear sweetness of the Sauternes.

If it’s a wine that’s a little more acidic like Sauvignon Blanc or a French Sancerre, I’m looking to match that acidity. For example, a really bright Sauvignon Blanc goes well with a fresher goat cheese. Those acids seem to come together, balance out and allow other flavors of the wine come out.

I also consider delicate contrasts. Roquefort and Sauternes, Stilton and Port—you’re getting a big, bold, spicy, blue cheese being balanced out by a sweet dessert wine.

If you’re opening up a big, special wine, you don’t want a cheese that will dominate any flavors. You’re going for subtlety. If somebody comes in with a 1982 Lafitte, I’m not going to pair it up with an aggressive cheese. I want a cheese that’s dialed-down in strength. Let the wine showcase itself more.

I also find that with those really big tannic wines, the fattier cheeses seem to work better, whether it’s an aged sheep’s goat cheese or Italian pecorinos or even double or triple cream cheeses. I like that mouth-coating feeling of the fat in your mouth and a really big tannic wine. It’s a big contrast, and it cuts the fat and levels out the tannins.

What is the most common mistake people make when they’re trying to pair wine with cheese?
I think a lot of people put way too much thought into it. You can go for that perfect pairing, but it should ultimately be fun. Just relax.

I never know which to choose for serving: crackers or bread.
I personally love fresh bread. This may sound, um, cheesy, but for me, I think about how somebody has gone to the trouble of making this cheese. The cheesemaker has spent time taking care of these cows or finding the proper milk and doing everything right to make this cheese. I think you owe that same respect to your bread. There’s just something special about a really fresh, crusty baguette. Bread has a lot more layers of flavors (doughy, yeasty, toasty) than crackers. But at the end of the day, if you like crackers, then crackers work just fine.

Principles of the Grid

  1. Earth with Earth: Champagne made from Pinot Noir grapes and red wines like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah often have earthy, mushroom notes. Cloth-bound cheddars and mold-ripened bries also have similar characteristics.

  2. Acidity with Acidity: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are typically light and refreshing with various floral notes. Younger cheeses (goats, cheddar and Gouda) often exhibit similar acidic, brighter notes.

  3. Decadence with Decadence: A celebratory wine like Champagne goes well with double or triple cream cheeses because both are rich and buttery. Think Sauternes and foie gras.

  4. If it grows together, (maybe) it goes together: Pecorinos and Tuscan reds. Loire Valley goat’s milk cheese with Sancerre. An Epoisses from Burgundy with a buttery, White Burgundy (Chardonnay).

  5. Contrast and Balance: The intensity of a blue cheese, for example, will balance out with a fruity, jammy Syrah or Merlot and allow more subtle flavors in the wine to appear. Same goes for a stinky Munster with a young Riesling (think pear and honey). Tannins in wine also work well with fat. When big Cabernet Sauvignons or Pinot Noirs coat your mouth with heavy tannins, wash-rind cheeses or bries have enough fat content to cut the tannins just enough for balance.