When Pairing Wine With Cheese, Should You Contrast Or Complement Flavors (Or Both)?

Wine and cheese are as natural a pairing as bread and butter. Believe it or not, there is some science behind the combination of cheese and wine. Since cheese is typically high in fat, it can coat the mouth and make it hard to taste foods. However, wine has an acidic element that cuts through the cheese coating, giving you an explosion of flavor that fills your entire mouth. The lingering question that remains is whether it is better to contrast or complement cheese with wine.

To get the answer, it's best to consult an expert. Few are as qualified to speak on cheese as Chad Galer. He is vice president of product innovation and food safety at Dairy Management Inc. Galer grew up on a dairy farm and studied microbiology in college. His knowledge and experience have qualified him to be a judge in both domestic and international cheese contests, earning him the nickname of "The Cheese Guy."

When asked if you should try to match the flavor profiles or contrast them when pairing cheese with wine, Galer responded, "When pairing cheese with any food or drink, and wine is no exception, a good rule of thumb is to make pairings that are complementary or enhancing contrasts. So, both have a place, and both should be included when pairing wine."

Enhancing flavors with cheese and wine

Both cheese and wine have a wide range of ages, complexities, and depths. When pairing, it's these nuances that you want to consider. For complementing, you want to match two similar elements. This would be like taking a picture of a flower in a field of flowers to offer a broader scope of its beauty. Contrasting pairings would be taking a picture of a lone flower in the desert to spotlight its individuality. 

Your approach to complementary pairing could be as easy as pairing two items with bold flavors, such as aged cheddar and cabernet sauvignon. The strong flavors of each ensure neither will be overpowered. Galer suggests parmesan and chardonnay. "Parmesan cheese has wonderful savory and fruity flavors and is a great pair for a crisp and fruity chardonnay. The fruit flavors from both the cheese and wine bring out the best in both."

Regarding a contrasting pairing of cheese and wine, there is one cheese and wine pairing trick you need to know; salt is the yin to sweet's yang. Gelar suggests pairing a sweet riesling with feta cheese. He said, "The saltiness of feta pairs with the sweet flavor of the riesling, enhancing both flavors with this classic sweet and salty combination." Similarly, the creamy, buttery nature of a fatty brie can be contrasted with an acidic bubbly, such as Champagne. The two opposing elements elevate the level of satisfaction you feel with this contrast.