What are the best drinks to pair with cheese?

04 February 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Red or white wine? Cider or beer? Or perhaps no alcohol at all...industry insiders give the scoop on the best drinks to pair with cheese
What are the best drinks to pair with cheese?

So, a customer has visited you, and bought some absolutely incredible artisan cheese. Naturally you’ve suggested your favourite pickles or relishes for pairing. Some crackers too. But what about drink? Often, their instinct is to swing by the supermarket for a bottle of red - as prescribed by food writers and experts for as long as most of us can remember, and beyond.

But is it always the best choice? Not necessarily, say our insiders, who urge you to recommend something a bit different.

“We’ve got some great information on pairings we’ve done over the years,” says Edward Hancock, founder of The Cheese Geek. “I think one of the general rules we’ve found that’s very very reliable when it comes to wine and cheese is that the best all-rounder is Chardonnay that’s slightly oaked. It’s gone through malolactic fermentation and you’ve got that slight buttery, oaky, vanilla mouthfeel, which picks up so nicely on the creaminess of the cheese. For us that’s the go-to and will be the backbone of a tasting.”

If it’s red wine a customer is looking for, he suggests Pinot Noir or Gamay which “generally play well” with cheese. Edward also matches Bordeaux with aged Cheddar, and Syrah with Gouda-style cheese. However, he says red wine isn’t always the ideal choice that consumers are often led to believe. “There’s a myth that you need this big bold wine with cheese. The truth is, a lot of red table wines do not work well with cheese. When you get into it, there are white wines that work a lot better.”

The greatest pairing ever, according to the cheese fanatic, is Sauternes and Roquefort. “That beautiful sweetness works with the saltiness, and it’s a great textural pairing as well.”

Wine expert, wine podcaster, and co-founder of independent wine shop Vino Gusto, Jake Bennett-Day, says he’s a big fan pairing beer and cider with cheese, but stresses wine will always have a rightful place alongside the cheeseboard. “It’s a tried and tested concept,” he says, adding that experienced retailers, such as himself, are best placed to help customers find the perfect bottle. 

He agrees with Edward that white wine is an excellent bedfellow for cheese. “A lot of people have this perception that with a cheeseboard they should have a big, meaty glass of red wine or Port. It’s true for some, but if I had to pair one wine that would go with several varieties, it would be sparkling.

“I’m a huge fan of the bracing, fresh acidity of Champagne, and the way that’s able to clean the palate after a rich, indulgent cheese. It’s hard to match.”

Jake says there are some “truly amazing” wines from the Burgundy region, which express a great deal of acidity, texture and richness, particularly when it comes to white bottles. “They work with buttery, nutty, fruity cheeses,” he advises.

“Then Sancerre is a classic pairing for goats’ cheese. From the Loire Valley, it’s a fresh, mineral style that’s the perfect antidote to a spicy, creamy goats’ cheese from the region. It’s a beautiful example of ‘what goes together grows together’ and is an outstanding pairing.”

One of Jake’s favourite styles of wine with food is a dry Riesling. “If you have a pungent cheese, one of the best ways to combat that is with steely acidity, which you find in abundance in Riesling. I think it’s a really lovely pairing. In my mind, white wine overall is more interesting for most cheeses.”

What about blue cheese, then? Jake admits any pairings depend on the style of blue. “We recently paired a Gorgonzola Piccante with an aged Vin Santo. The Italian, aged sweet wine works in a similar way to Port, and it’s wonderful having the sweet and saltiness together. It’s so delightful to have two Italian products together. Sherry is never a bad shout either. And I recently enjoyed blue cheese with red Vermouth. It’s savoury and herbal, but with enough sweetness to offset the blue. Anything with a bit of sugar is quite delicious.”

Pairing cider with cheese

According to food consultant Sam Wilkin there is no better match for most cheeses than cider. Inroads are being made to popularise the pairing in the UK, helped by a growing collective of forward-thinking craft cider makers, keen to demonstrate just how good the drink can be.

“It’s interesting,” says Sam. “Much like British cheese, for a long time cider struggled with perception. For the average person on the street, their ideal of cider is that it’s really cold, really fizzy, and served over ice in a pint glass.”

This perception is being perpetuated by some mass producers who take advantage of the fact that the threshold of juice required for making cider is around 35%. 

‘Proper’ modern, artisanal cider, he adds, is 100% apple juice. “There are some incredible makers using old techniques, but also techniques borrowed from wine, like bottle conditioning.”

Keeving (halting fermentation by removing the lees from the top of cider to kill off the yeast) is a traditional technique being adopted by more and more producers. With no yeast to eat the sugars in the drink, the result is a sweeter cider (or perry) with a lower ABV. Ciders made in this way, he says, are utterly delicious with cheese.

“In places like northern Spain and northern France there’s an incredible heritage of having cheese with cider. Equally, here in the UK we have some brilliant makers, in Herefordshire, Somerset, Devon – I’ve even heard of a cider apple orchard being planted recently in Yorkshire. We’ve always had a strong heritage of cider here – we’ve just ignored it.

“Cheese was like that, but now everyone’s saying how brilliant British cheese is, and they are thinking about what fits with it.”

Sam says he recently visited an ancient farmhouse in Somerset where he saw first hand the history of the synergy between cheese and cider. “They had one room for cheesemaking and one for making cider. Around 150 years ago we would mature cider in the cellar, and cheese in the attic. You’d have cows and sheep grazing in the orchard. There’s a natural romance and affinity there. The ultimate ploughman’s was cider, cheese and pickles. Most importantly, they are delicious together.”

Sam is amongst the folk who feel cheese and red wine don’t go together. “When I worked in bars around 10 years ago, Malbec was having its big moment. Everyone wanted big, 14.5% Argentinian reds with cheeseboards. It doesn’t work. This brings out the tannins in the wine, and the ABV smashes the flavour complexity of the cheese. I think you need something with a bit more delicacy. Even a big, tannic cider, because it has fruit to it, will work beautifully with cheese.”

He also believes cider is better value, saying he’d equate a £10 to £15 bottle of craft cider to a £60 fine wine. “It’s more accessible. I’m not dismissing wine, but I think cider is more down to earth.”

Getting down to the business of pairings, Sam recommends a cider he developed with Tom Oliver at Oliver’s Cider in Herefordshire to go alongside mature Cheddar – Cheddar on my Mind. “It has a sweetness, but not a caramel sugar sweetness. It’s more fruit-forward. There’s something for the tannins to play with, and the natural fermentation cuts through the fat and animal notes.”

For him, vintage Cheddar requires something a bit sweeter and bolder to match its saltiness, adding that most ciders he’d pair with this type of cheese would also work with a blue. “I like an ice cider. There are some fantastic ones out there. Brannland is a fabulous ice cider from Sweden. It’s almost like a dessert wine, with syrupy and spicy, almost tarte tatin notes. Also look for keeved cider. Its sweet lightness cuts through the bigger, bolder, fattier flavours. Pilton Cider in Somerset specialises in it.”

Brie-style cheeses need something with gentle tannins and a nice bit of fruit balanced with acidity, says Sam, who recommends sparkling, bottle conditioned ciders. “Little Pomona’s is nice, with a great texture that goes well with brie and Baron Bigod-style cheeses. Find & Foster from Devon also make a really great wine-style bottle conditioned cider.”

And he’s back to keeved drinks for more pungent, washed-rind cheeses, saying a keeved perry has a natural perfume that “plays really nicely” with these varieties.

To stay ahead of the curve, Sam says cheese retailers should seriously be considering putting cider on their shelves. “I think we will look back in 20 years’ time and see there have been huge changes in this industry. Last summer at the Tate Modern in London there was a pop-up cider salon where nearly 40 makers from all over the UK came down and did tastings from 750ml bottles. They showed how refined cider can be, and that there are a lot of young makers, some coming from the world of wine, really throwing themselves into the industry to make something truly delicious. That event showed this is a defining moment for cider.”

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