When chef Todd Knoll sits down with his winemaker to develop wine-and-cheese pairings, it’s a serious study.
“You’re going to have to taste,” he says about drilling down dozens of cheeses to pair with wines at Jordan Vineyard & Winery, his employer. “That’s why you see us at the table with 30 cheeses. And I always taste with my winemaker.”
Located in Healdsburg, California, the 1,200-acre property includes a lake, working farm and gardens, and rolling hills—making it the perfect venue for seasonal events and picnic series. The winery produces only two wines, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, but imbues each with variety thanks to its artisan cheese matches that are offered on-site.
A published folio about the four cheeses serves as a form of education, to help replicate again at home.
“Cab is one of the more difficult wines to pair with cheese,” Knoll says, adding that the full-bodied wine demands something heavy, like a protein. His solution has been to use garnishes, such as toasted chestnuts and dried figs, to deepen the cheese pairings. Hazelnuts, as well as pistachios, pair superbly with chardonnay, too, he says.
Fruit sides can also help hammer home a pairing match. “During apple season, I’ll pick a lower-sugar apple. Both apple and pear work well because they have some of the tannins in the skin,” Knoll adds.
A consistent cheese pairing with chardonnay is a soft, fresh goat cheese or brie. During the cooler months, Aaron Pannell, the general manager at Bouchon inside The Venetian in Las Vegas, turns to warmed brie, paired with Champagne. “It opens the cheese up, and you get the nuances of the cheese because it’s warm,” he says. Another popular pairing for a cool night is aged cheddar with a heavy red wine, which has a comfort food feel to it.
In getting the most mileage out of cheese and wine pairings, some restaurants have turned to storage and bottling systems that keep varietals at their peak for as long as possible. At The Venetian, Pannell relies on Coravin, a wine preservation system and gadget that pours wine without popping the cork. Within the past year, he says, the restaurant has brought in close to $1 million in sales thanks to the Coravin.
One such pairing is roquefort with Chateau d’Yquem, a Premier Cru Supérieur Sauternes (made of sémillon and sauvignon blanc grapes) from Bordeaux. “The nice, pungent flavor [in the cheese] is mixed with the sweetness and rounded aspect of the Chateau d’Yquem,” he says.
At NEAT, a bottle shop and tasting room in Alys Beach, Florida, customers are attracted to global takes on artisan wines, beers, spirits, and starters, including the cheese plate, with selections sourced from Georgia and Vermont, as well as Italy and France. Wines rotate monthly, but the cheese plate only changes once per year.
“It kind of keeps us on our toes,” says Hunter Church, NEAT’s manager, about the rotation. “By featuring varietals and blends from around the world, we try to maintain varying levels of body between whites and reds and a few fun notes here and there, in case they want to do a more specific pairing. It’s an educational process, too, pushing people toward varietals they’ve never had or are not used to.”
As a rule of thumb, Church strives to feature a white wine with higher acidity, an oaky or nutty white wine, a lighter-bodied red wine, a tannic red wine, bubbles—whether it’s Champagne or sparkling wine—and a rosé for good measure.
Considering texture is another avenue. “Match the weight of the wine with the weight of the cheese,” says Sabina Magyar, owner of Village Cheese Shop in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, which also serves wines by the glass. Cheddar and merlot are one example of “rich cheeses with big wines,” she says, or “butter with butter,” like chardonnay and brie. Playing around with contrasting flavors—like salty and spicy—can also lead to success, she says.
Another school of thought when pairing wine and cheese is to match up geography. “If it grows together, it goes together,” quips Pannell, pointing to Epoisses (a pungent, creamy cheese with the rind washed in brandy) paired with a mineraly chardonnay from the same region, Burgundy.
Despite the numerous opinions—reflective of palate and preferences—there is one commonality: Sparkling wine is king. “The most versatile pairing is Champagne, for the dry richness,” Pannell says. Magyar echoes his enthusiasm, noting that the acidity and effervescence in those bubbles, especially with residual sugar, make sparkling wines and cheese a slam-dunk pairing.
At the end of the day, it’s only about what works—and not what’s best. Trying to find the single best pairing could well become one’s life thesis. “I don’t think any of this should be overthought,” Knoll says.