Pairing Wine and Cheese – A Primer

October is American Cheese Month — a time when we celebrate delicious and diverse cheeses and the farmers, cheesemakers, retailers, cheesemongers and chefs who bring them to your table.

Here at The Little Nell, we celebrate local cheese by serving cheeses from the Avalanche Cheese Company, made in nearby Basalt, and we also love to pair cheese with delicious wines. We asked our wine team to share their favorite cheese/wine pairing suggestions in honor of Cheese Month, so we’ll be posting their thoughts/pairings throughout October. We hope you indulge in a wedge/bottle soon! 

Carlton McCoy, Assistant Wine Director and Advanced Sommelier  

Cheese is one of the most wine/beer friendly foods out there. And given the diversity of the cheese world, you have the opportunity to be very playful and experimental with your pairings.

As a general rule, I usually select wines/beers with generous acidity or bubbles. I tend to categorize cheeses into four simple categories: Soft and Runny, Semi-Soft, Firm (Aged) and Blue. Within these four categories, you obviously have different levels of pungency and intensity of flavor.  Take for example the soft cheeses: a Camembert would be an example of a mild, soft cheese, and Epoisse is an extremely pungent, washed-rind soft cheese.  With this said, you must be very aware of the individual flavor profile of the given cheese as to not overwhelm your beverage or vice versa. Below are my recommended parings for these four categories.

Soft and Runny:  Softer, milder cheeses pair very well with sparkling wine.  If it is a very mild, bloomy rind cheese like Brie, I would purchase a more playful sparkler like Prosecco. If you decide on a richer bloomy rind cheese like Brillat Savarin, a weightier champagne will do, as will a lighter dessert wine such as an Auslese Riesling.  In the case of the washed rind or “stinky” soft cheeses, beer may be your answer. I really enjoy malty ales with cheeses like Vacherin or Epoisse.

Semi-firm: Semi-firm cheeses such as St. Nectaire  or younger Swiss cheeses such as Gruyere pair extremely well with lighter botrytized wines such as Vouvray Demi-Sec. For a dry pairing, try White Bordeaux or a Dry Alsatian Riesling. Remember, the more intense the flavor profile of the cheese, the fuller flavored the wine. I also include goat cheeses in this category. In my humble opinion, there is almost no better cheese and wine pairing than Crotin de Chavignol and Sancerre.

Firm or Aged: When it comes to firmer cheeses, there can be a vast difference in flavor profile and intensity of flavor, ranging from a mild and salty Pecorino to a rich and butterscotch-flavored Gouda. In the case of your saltier, drier cheeses like aged Pecorino, I would recommend a sweeter wine to counteract the aggressive saltiness. Try a Vendage Tardive Riesling from Alsace or a Molleux Vouvray. For Parmesan, Lambrusco is a classic pairing that I always enjoy. When pairing with the richer, aged cheeses such as Sprintsz or Gouda, try a richer sweet wine such as an Alsatian Pinot Gris Selection de Grain Noble.

Blue Cheese: Blue cheeses can vary greatly in style.  When pairing with softer, milder blue cheeses like La Peral, I really enjoy off-dry sparkling reds like Bugey Cerdon or Brachett D’Aqui. In the case of more full-flavored blues like Valdeon, a fruit-forward red wine such as an Aussie Shiraz should fit the bill. If you insist on having Port with your blue cheese, reach for a vintage Port.  The natural fruit-forward nature of vintage Port will pair well with the salty, pungent blue.  If you’d like to try my favorite blue, ask your local market to search out Fourme d’Ambert.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!


Next week, Advanced Sommelier Vilma Mazaite will be sharing her tips. Have questions? Leave them here or on our Facebook page.