If there is wine left from earlier in the meal, then this is what usually accompanies the cheese. But if by chance its time to crack open another bottle, there are some rules of thumb to follow that can flatter both the wine and the cheese, writes Vino Veritas.
France is blessed with a fine and diverse variety of cheeses, and entire books have been written on the subtleties of the many available varieties.
For purposes of this brief discussion, we (over)simplify the cheese menu into just a few broad categories: soft cheeses made from cow's milk, hard cow's milk cheeses, sheep and goat's milk cheeses, and mold-infused blue cheeses.
The most frequently encountered soft cow's milk cheeses from France are brie and camembert, with soft edible rinds and usually sold in thin round spruce casks. My personal favorite in this category, however, is the etherial Mont d'Or from the Jura region.
This world class cheese is semi-seasonal, typically available from September to May. This category of cheeses is very creamy in texture, and fortunately matches well with a broad variety of wines, including all light- and medium-bodied red wines from beaujolais to burgundy and also Loire reds (Chinon and Bourgueil).
Matching soft cow's milk cheeses with white wines is a bit more complicated. One's first thought is "why?," since reds will almost be better choices. But soft cow's milk cheeses can also go well with high-acid dry white wines such as muscadets, Savoie, Jurancon secs, or Loire chenin blanc wines such as Vouvray.
Surprisingly, soft cow's milk cheeses comprise the best cheese category to have with champagne (although there are a lot of things to have with champagne that are preferable to cheese).
Hard cow's milk cheeses comprise a broad category that includes Comte, Mimolette (a personal favorite, and also the favorite of Louis XIV), Gruyere, Cantal and Salers. If, poor thing, you're not in France, this category includes Cheddar and Italian Parmesan.
Here we're talking full-bodied reds such as better Bordeauxs (take out a bank loan), Northern Rhones, Chateauneuf du Papes and Gigondas. Spanish Priorats, better Riojas, Italian Barolos or Chianti Classicos, South African reds, Argentinian malbecs and California cabernets or zinfandels would be good choices too.
Sheep and goat cheeses are a broad category in the sense that flavors run from mild to strong, think feta to manchego. In France, sheep cheeses are primarily obscurely-named Basque cheeses from the Pyrenees that are often referred to generically as brebis (the most famous, however, is Roquefort, see blue cheese discussion below).
The most frequently-encountered French goat's milk cheese is usually called just chevre, although there are some better choices such as Bucheron, Rocamadour, and probably the best of all, Crottin de Chavignol.
The best wine match across the sheep/goat category is a bit surprising -- Spanish dry fino or manzanilla sherries (alas, not easy to find in a country like France that is parochial about its own wines).
Happily, there are many other worthwhile choices. Consider medium-bodied reds that are not exceptionally fruity or over-wrought, such as Croze Hermitage, almost any Languedoc or Roussillon red such as Corbieres or Minervois, Cahors, or comparable Spanish or Italian choices.
On the white side of the ledger, this is where chardonnay wines step out. With sheep and especially goat cheeses, try Macons or other white burgundies if you are in France, or chardonnays from New Zealand to Austria to California (just beware of the over-oaked variety of chardonnay, which match with almost no foods besides popcorn and fried fish).
A rather wide range of Alsatian wines also marry well with sheep and goat cheeses so long as they are not too sweet, particularly gewurtztraminers.
Because these cheeses have such assertive flavors, most wines simply don't measure up. With red wines, the obvious choices are fortified wines such as port, the little-known French competitor rivesaltes (excellent value if you can find it), or Spanish oloroso sherries.
With white wines, blue cheeses will usually overpower everything but sauternes (expensive) or Monbazillacs (better value), or in fact almost anything in the late-harvest "sticky" category. Grand cru Alsatians can be good blue cheese matches also.
There is another rule that can often be helpful in matching food and wine: geography! Its almost uncanny, but more often than not cheeses from a particular region will pair well with local wines from that same area.
In southwest France, the local cabecou goat's cheese goes well with the astringent local Cahors wine. In the Auvergne region, cantal cheese goes well with Languedoc wines from the adjacent area. This is hardly surprising, since many of these cheeses and wines essentially evolved together over hundreds of years.
So the next time you contemplate a nice cheese as the complement to a sumptious meal, try selecting a wine on the basis of the cheese you will be serving, or vice versa. A little planning, experimentation and practice with wine and cheese matches can elevate your entire wine/food experience.
Vino Veritas is a pseudonym for a passionate wine collector and foodie currently living in southern France. The author has served on tasting panels for several wine publications, contributed to an irreverent wine column that provoked death threats, currently tastes over 1,000 wines a year, and visits dozens of wine producers annually in France, Spain, Germany, Austria and Italy.