How to Pair Wine and Cheese

Find just the right combo with these expert tips
Photo by Aerial Mike/Adobe Stock

Whether you’re planning an extravagant dinner party or a casual night in, you can’t go wrong pairing (Michigan) wine and cheese. Here, three Michigan-based experts weigh in on how to find a combination that works.

Location, Location, Location
As a cheesemonger at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor from 2000 to 2003, Jeremy Duggan, the sommelier and general manager at Dusty’s Cellar in Okemos, learned plenty about pairing cheeses with wines.

“One of my general rules for pairing cheese and wine is to focus on regionalism,” Duggan says. “In most European regions, the wines and the local cheeses have been developed for centuries. Take the Loire Valley, for example — they produce a lot of goat cheese and a lot of Sauvignon Blanc.”

Does the Color Matter?
“White wines work better with most cheeses than reds,” Duggan says. “Obviously, there are exceptions. My thought is that cheese has a lot of fat and requires acidity to help cleanse the palate. White wines have higher acidity than most reds do, so this helps to create a balance.”

Over at Bistro Bella Vita in Grand Rapids, Tristan Walczewski, the chief operating officer and beverage director at the bistro’s parent company, notes that the color of the cheese can influence the pairing in the same way that the color of the wine does.

“With darker, aged cheeses, wines with oxidation (orange or amber wines, sherry) offer exceptional pairings because they match the salinity, funk, or nuttiness,” he says. “Blue-veined cheeses are decadent and pair well with sweeter, dessert-style wines.”

Guy Strong, tasting room host at Bel Lago in Cedar, believes that color plays a secondary role to flavor when it comes to pairing.

“Personally, the color of the cheese makes no difference to me,” he says. “It’s all about the flavor of both the wine and cheese. You don’t want one to overpower the other. It’s about finding the balance that elevates each product. If you find yourself continuously enjoying the cheese and wine together and wanting more, then you’ve found yourself a winning pairing.”

The Type of Pairing
Walczewski approaches wine and cheese pairings in two ways: “I like to use complementary and contrasting pairings,” he says. “Complementary pairings enhance the flavors of the food and wine. When pairing with hard-rind cheeses that are often nutty, funky, and salty, you want to choose a wine with salinity, funk, or even oxidation and nuttiness.” For this type of pairing, Walczewski recommends Fennville-based Modales’s orange and amber wines, or wines from Shady Lane Cellars in Suttons Bay.

Strong agrees that complementary flavors can play an interesting role in these pairings. “You always want the wine and cheese to complement each other and bring out the best in one another,” he says. “Cheese can highlight different flavors in wine. For instance, we paired a peppercorn Gouda with our Blaufränkisch red wine, and the cheese accentuated the natural black-pepper flavors that are subtly present in that wine, thereby elevating the experience with the cheese.”

On the flip side, contrasting pairings are exactly what they sound like.

“For contrasting pairings, explore elements that contrast each other — most notably, a high-fat dish or cheese paired with a high-acid wine,” Walczewski says. “The elevated acidity cuts through the richness, providing balance that is necessary.”

Cortney Casey, owner of Michigan by the Bottle in metro Detroit, also recommends these approaches to pairing. “If you have a really dense, runny cheese, you may want an acidic, refreshing wine to cut through all of that, or you might want something fuller-bodied, perhaps something oaked, to mimic the weight of the cheese,” she says. “Keep in mind, if a cheese is intensely flavored, it may overpower a delicate wine, and vice versa.”

If at First You Don’t Succeed …
Pairing cheese and wine provides a perfect excuse to experiment with different flavors.

Casey’s favorite wine and cheese pairing combines a creamy, funky cheese and an earthy Pinot Noir. Photo courtesy of Cortney Casey

“The best way to find a delicious pairing is to try, try, try,” Casey says. “There’s no such thing as failure here. Come up with theories about which cheeses will match with which wines based on their intensity and texture, and then see if you’re correct. If it’s not a match made in heaven, try again. It’s a great excuse to eat a lot of cheese and drink a lot of wine.”

To pair with softer, creamier cheeses …

“Acidity is key,” Walczewski says. “Wyncroft in the Lake Michigan Shore AVA [American Viticultural Area] makes one of Michigan’s greatest wines, Shou Blanc, and a Bordelaise style of Sauvignon Blanc that is perfect for pairing with goat cheeses.”

To pair with a funky cheese …

“My all-time favorite wine and cheese pairing is the Manchester cheese from Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor paired with Domaine Berrien Cellars’ Pinot Noir,” Casey says. “The cheese is creamy and funky, and the balance of fruitiness and earthiness in many Michigan Pinot Noirs complements it beautifully.”

To pair with brie …

“When serving brie, I find that a dry sparkling wine cuts the richness and makes for a refreshing pairing,” Strong says. “A lightly oaked Chardonnay or Pinot Noir also complements the creaminess of brie without overwhelming its subtle flavor.”

“Michigan has hidden gem wines made from Sauvignon Blanc,” Walczewski says. “I highly recommend those with rich cheeses like brie.”

To pair with saltier cheeses …

“Sparkling wines, Pinot Gris/Grigio, or even a slightly sweet Riesling can be delightful and complement the saltier flavors in the cheese,” Duggan says.

“With hard, nutty styles of cheese with elevated salt, Michigan has some excellent examples of orange or amber wines,” Walczewski says. “I’m particularly a fan of Shady Lane Cellars’ Pomeranz, a skin-contact Riesling. Modales has also released some excellent orange wines, most recently based on a Georgian grape, Rkatsiteli.”

To pair with Gruyère …

“Gruyère and its French counterpart, Comté, are from the Alps, and these regions are known for their high-acid whites and light-bodied reds,” Duggan says. “I’d recommend a Michigan Cab Franc and Blaufränkisch if you’re going for a red.”

“We usually opt for more acidic wines, such as a dry Riesling, for heavier, fattier cheeses like Gruyère,” Strong says.

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