Levi is a sommelier in New York and as such he is often asked to pair wines with cheese. With very few exceptions, Arpege in France was his example, cheese in a restaurant means a cheese plate, and pairing wines with an assortment of cheeses changes the equation entirely. In truth, that’s probably what most people mean when they ask about cheese and wine pairings: not a specific recommendation for a particular cheese, but rather a wine that is flexible enough to pair with many cheeses!
And here I’ve been going on and on and specific pairings for years! I’ll follow up this article with some specific pairings. After all, there does come a time when you have a bottle of wine open throughout a meal and you want to finish off the meal with the last of the bottles and just a bite of cheese. For today, let’s take a look at wines that work with cheese in a more general sense, beginning with Levi’s recommendation: Marsala.
Photo courtesy of Vincent Ma via Flickr/cc
When most people think of Marsala, they probably think of veal or chicken sauteed and then finished off with the slightly sweet Italian wine know as Marsala. That’s certainly a valid and popular impression of what Marsala might be and one good use for it, but Marsala, like almost every wine, has a more generic example as well as some particularly exceptional bottlings.
Marsala is a fortified wine, similar to Sherry in many ways in that it reaches its peak when carefully aged. The best examples often are vintage dated or are soleras (barrel aged wines of multiple vintages) that have ages of 10 or even 20 years noted on the label.
With this level of maturity, the generally delicate in nature Marsala becomes intensely flavored with notes of almonds, dates and figs. All of these are happy to pair with cheese, particularly ripe, well aged wash rind cheese, though their high acidity and relatively light body makes them particularly adept with a myriad of pairings.
Mentioning that Marsala is similar to Sherry was no accident here, as Sherry easily comes as the second option on this list and one that is both easier to find as well as more affordable than Marsala.
Sherry is a fortified wine made in Spain. It comes in many styles, from light and airy fino to heavy and sweet. The dry versions can sometimes be a little to lean to pair with anything but the most delicate cheese, but when you move onto something with a touch of sweetness, like a Pale Cream Sherry, you can really find some explosive pairings. A runny, pungent cheese is often the perfect partner for the salty, complex flavors of a Pale Cream Sherry, though the style that was once sold as rich or sweet Oloroso, both of which are now prohibited terms when it comes to labeling Sherry, was an absolute perfect match: rich but not heavy, sweet but not sugary and with a tang to match the greatest cheese.
Both Marsala and Sherry are somewhat esoteric wines, which is why they work so well when it comes to pairing with a variety of cheese. The keys to their success are savory flavors and high acidity. But that is not the only option for those looking to pair wines with multiple cheeses. Sweetness, as with Pale Cream Sherry, is a fine partner for most cheese as long as it’s not taken too far, and there are several wines that are right at home with cheese.
Take for example demi-sec sparkling wine, either Champagne, sparkling wine or even Prosecco. All of these have great acidity and scrubbing bubbles that help balance the richness of the fattiest cheeses. Sugar brightened fruit allows you to contrast the funky flavors of your favorite cheese with a sweet fruit pairing as opposed to the more complimentary flavors of the Sherry and Marsala.
Perhaps one of the greatest cheese friendly wines, Riesling often has it all: a bit of sweetness, bright acidity, sweet fruit flavors and if the wine has some age on it, a nice array of savory elements. All of this adds up to a wine that can match well with many cheeses. The generally lighter character of many Riesling really give flexibility for the freshest, buttery cheese or hard aged examples to blues, the wine stumping cheese!
One of the maxims of food and wine pairing is to try to match the intensity of the dish with the intensity of the wine. This is where the many components of Riesling come into play. With so many aspects available to compliment or contrast with the flavors of the cheese, Riesling is able to highlight one aspect of a cheese without dominating the scene.
Now things might get weird, I admit, but maybe it’s time for an off dry rose. Or maybe even, dare I say it? White Zinfandel.
A well done white Zin is fruity, fresh and a little sweet, which makes it perfectly suitable for pairing with fresher cheese as well as light blues. That sweetness serves as a backstop for more assertively flavored cheese and salty hard cheese. It may not be the perfect match for any one cheese, but we’re speaking in generalities here. A light rose, you can find off dry examples from the Loire, Spain, and Italy as well, is a charming partner for so many cheeses that we simply can’t ignore it.