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Cheese and wine are the ultimate traditional pairing, and heading into the busy festive season, you can be certain that customers will be on the hunt for ideas that will ‘wow’ their guests. Before footfall in the shop picks up, it’s worth going back to basics to re-examine your favourite pairings, unearth some new gems and look at brand new ways to provide a personalised offering for your customers.
Wine and cheese are a classic pairing for a reason. “Wine acts like an additional layer of complexity to a dish, and as such it has the ability to both enhance and diminish the flavours in the food, and similarly the food can affect the wine,” says Jamie Patterson, co-founder of Ramekins & Wine, which offers immersive food and wine pairing experiences. “But when you have the right dish and wine together it can be hugely profound and eye opening. It’s incredibly important with cheese,” he stresses. “Have a tannic Bordeaux with an oozing Gorgonzola and it won’t be a pleasant experience. Pair the same wine with an aged Comté, however, and it will likely be highly delicious.”
There are a number of aspects that can go into creating fantastic pairings. At Ramekins & Wine, Jamie dives into the technical make-up of a wine to create a perfectly suited dish to bring out certain flavours. But customers likely don’t need this level of precision, he says. “For a customer, the goal is more to have wines that generally complement the food, rather than being eye opening. With that in mind, it comes down to the food they’re eating, the type of sauce or side dish, the occasion and budget.”
For Svetlana Kukharchuk of The Cheese Lady, careful questioning can help reveal the ideal cheese and wine pairing for a customer. “Personalising each customer’s order is one of the most fun parts of what we do. By asking insightful questions, we gauge customers’ taste preferences, favourite drinks and what occasion they are getting cheese and wine for,” she explains. “Everybody’s palate is unique and different so we like to base our recommendations on the customer’s palate rather than our own. Our recommendations will be different for a person who likes red wine and only firm cheeses to the recommendations we will give someone who is going to, let’s say, a girl’s night with bubbles,” she adds.
These skills are key to good cheesemongering, says Greg Parsons, co-owner of Sharpham Dairy. “The best cheesemongers know how to break down the barriers to make customers feel utterly relaxed to ask questions. It’s important customers know there’s no right or wrong cheeseboard – it’s all about preference. Asking questions about customer’s favourite cheeses, the dinner menu, occasion, as well as encouraging customers to taste samples, can go a long way to helping to build customer loyalty and ultimately lead to sales.”
That being said, there are some general tips and tricks that retailers can keep in mind when providing pairing ideas. “Pairing cheese and wine is more of an art than a science so there are very few definitive rules, however time-tested wisdoms like ‘What grows together, goes together,’ generally work,” Svetlana says.
“I also believe that cheese and wine should match in their intensity of flavour and body. In addition to creating balanced cheese and wine combinations, one should consider their primary flavours (sweetness, acidity, salt, bitterness, umami) and their secondary flavours (fruity, nutty, etc) and see whether they complement and/or balance each other out,” she says.
Greg agrees that it’s a good rule of thumb to pair cheese and wines with equal intensity. “If you’re going for a cheese with a delicate character, don’t over-power it with a full bodied red. As you move onto complex aged cheeses, look for bolder or even fortified wines to match.” He also agrees with the ‘What grows together, goes together’ mantra. “Sharpham wine and cheese are made along the River Dart and the terroir shapes products that pair exceptionally well together.”
With Christmas on the horizon, retailers will want to have all the answers for uncertain customers. “One good rule,” Jamie says, “is that hard cheeses are very versatile with wine, and soft, or blue cheeses very temperamental – they tend to need a sweeter wine alongside.” But, he adds, “Don’t overthink it. The traditional Christmas dinner is an impossible challenge with regards pairing a wine that’s going to become remarkable in the presence of the food, but you can certainly have something very pleasant. Whites with high acidity and presence – Chablis is a great choice, and reds with structure and power – Bordeaux or Rhone wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape are classical and a treat. A good Aussie Muscat from Rutherglen is a must with the Christmas Pudding in our house,” he says.
If a customer is looking for a more in-depth lesson in cheese and wine pairing, why not pair up with a local sommelier to offer a tasting, either in person or over Zoom? “Tasting experiences are a fantastic way of discovering not only new cheeses and wines but also new combinations you would have never tried otherwise,” Svetlana says. “We all eventually get into a comfort zone when it comes to food and wine, even the most adventurous foodies amongst us. But tasting events allow us to quite literally broaden our taste horizons, sample and discover new things.” With plenty to explore in the months ahead, it’s time to get tasting.
“One problem with the Christmas cheese board is you have lots of different cheeses but just one wine. We’d suggest serving one type of cheese, as the French often do, and serve with a spectacular wine that’s guaranteed to go well,” he says. Here are Jamie’s suggestions for generally great matches…
• Madeira and aged Parmesan
• Bordeaux and aged Comté
• Loire Sauvignon Blanc and French goat’s cheese
• Sauternes and blue cheese
• Oak-aged Chardonnay and vintage Cheddar
• Oloroso Sherry and Camembert