The Myth of Port and Cheese
I once suggested to a client that the only reason to serve a port with cheese is if you completely detest the taste of cheese. Port and a very strong blue like stilton perhaps, but even that pairing is not the best that I have ever tasted. Wether this is a marketing coup by the Portugese, or simply a case of people believing that if it works with Stilton, then it must be great with all cheese, the reality is that of the thousands of cheeses available, very few are powerful enough to hold their own against such a powerful and sweet wine like port. This is also true of most ‘blockbuster’ red wines. In fact, and this might come as a surprise, but the majority of cheeses tend to work better with white wines. Here’s why.
Cheese is made with milk and usually not of the skim variety. The cream in cheese coats our tongues with fat which impedes our ability to perceive flavours. As well, the proteins found in milk tend to harden a red wine’s tannin and increases our perception of acidity. The end result is a muted, slightly acidic taste that will in fact ruin many a red wine, including port. White wine on the other hand, with its inherent fruitiness will benefit from the saltiness of cheese and bring refreshing fruit and a welcomed acidity to the palette.
This is not to say that you red wine fanatics are completely out of luck. As a general rule the harder and drier the cheese, the better chance it will work in combination with a red wine, as there is less creaminess to interfere with the wine’s fruit. Which one to choose depends on the strength of the cheese but generally look for red wines that put the emphasis on fruit instead of tannin such as Beaujolais, Dolcetto, pinot noir, or a juicy, sun drenched grenache. If you want to put your taste buds through a work-out and have a glass of Aussie shiraz or Amarone left over after dinner, try them with a Parmigiano-Reggiano, a well-aged cheddar or Gouda, or a Gré des Champs from Québec.
For the rest, break out the white and laugh knowingly as your guests ask wether they will get headaches if they drink white wine after red (and no, they really won’t). Now which one to choose depends on the cheese in question.
In general, fresh cheese like goat with it’s naturally high acidity work best with equally high acid whites like Sauvignon Blanc. I have also had some success serving an off-dry white port. Creamier cheeses like Brie, Camembert and Riopelle do well with a richer wine like a subtly oaked Chardonnay, Pinot gris, or even a good mousseux or champagne. As we move into soft and semi-soft cheese like Oka, Victor et berthold, Kenogami or Pied de Vent (why not go for just Quebec made cheese?), try a Riesling, Viogner or for a fortified wine like a Muscat de Rivesaltes or medium bodied sherry.
And finally for Blues, try a rich dessert wine like a Sauterne, late harvest gewürztraminer or riesling, or perhaps a sweet sherry. I freaked some people out at a previous tasting with a Pacherenc de Vic Bihl (a sweetie from the Madiran area). They will fare much better than a red based wine, especially with creamier blues like gorgonzola and Roquefort. The rich sweetness of dessert wines makes them compatible with a wide variety of pungent creamy cheeses and earthy, extra-strong hard cheeses.
The more that I delve into the subject, the more I am convinced that each cheese has it’s viticultural soul-mate, so when putting together a combination of different cheeses, try and choose similar types of cheese (ie. Brie and Riopelle). This will not only make it easier to choose the right wine, but it is interesting to also compare the subtle differences between the cheeses. But if you are going to serve the ‘surf and turf’ of cheese plates or are invited over to a ‘wine and cheese’ party, the safest bets are mildly sweet wines like those from the Jurançon, Alsace or my personal favorite, a slightly sweet sherry.
Then what about you beloved port? The number one mix with port, and in particular, Tawny port, is chocolate. Combine a couple of chocolate truffles with a sofa and a fireplace and you have the perfect end to any soirée.