What drink does a cheese expert pair with cheese? Hint: it's not wine

Nick Haddow tackles the big question: what do you drink with cheese?
Nick Haddow tackles the big question: what do you drink with cheese?  Photo: Alan Benson

You've found the perfect cheese for a big bash, or maybe just a quiet night in, got the best crackers around, and a few choice accompaniments. You are going to want something to drink …but what works best? It might not be what you think. 

Red wine

I need to get something off my chest. Red wine and cheese are not natural partners. I know that is going to be hard for some to get their heads around (especially some of my winemaking mates), but there, I've said it.

With wine you are dealing with elements such as tannins, astringency, acidity, wood and often high amounts of alcohol; in cheese you are dealing with some pretty robust flavours as well, including fats, salt, moulds and bacteria.

Nick Haddow's book Milk. Made is published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $55.
Nick Haddow's book Milk. Made is published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $55. Photo: Supplied

Granted, there can be some sublime experiences to be had with wine and cheese together but this is far from an automatic outcome. Unfortunately, especially in countries like Australia, the tendency is to assume the perfect wine for any cheese is a 'big bottle of red' such as a shiraz or cabernet.

This is wrong. Totally wrong! If anything, lighter styles of red, often from cooler climates where subtler wines that are more food-friendly are produced, will yield a better match. Tannins and astringency are public enemy number one to most cheeses, so wines with softer structures or those that have been bottle aged will nearly always work better.

White wines work better with cheeses than red wines.

White wines work better with cheeses than red wines. Photo: Julian Kingma

White wine 

Getting warmer … Because white wines tend to have less aggressive tannins and astringency and are usually lower in alcohol, they are generally more appropriate cheese matches. Acidity is often the problem though – many white grape varieties possess acids so green and fresh that you involuntarily clench your butt cheeks when you drink them. That's fine with a new-born goat's cheese but horrible with a cheese that has any developed characteristics. Again, rounder styles, possibly with some oak and/or bottle age, are the better way to go. 

Bubbles

I love Champagne (or, more correctly, sparkling wine in Australia) and have had some knee-trembling experiences matching vintage fizz with aged cheeses. Young, fresh cheeses also love sparkling wines. There is a whole wonderful world here for you to explore and I bid you a good journey.

Cider

Cheese and cider have had a long and fruitful friendship. The French region of Normandy is not only home to such benchmark cheeses such as camembert, Pont-l'Évêque and Livarot but it is also the spiritual home of cider – and it is no coincidence that strong, soft surface-ripened cheeses such as these work a treat with cider. English cheddar and Somerset cider is another classic combination. Where I live in Tasmania, there is a long history of cider-making that is currently having a revival, and the number of exceptionally good ciders is a boon for local cheese lovers.

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Beer and whisky are serious business, and we need to savour them.

Beer and whisky are serious business, and we need to savour them. Photo: Boilermaker House

Beer

Now we're talking. If there was ever an allround, go-to drink that both complements and contrasts with cheese, it is beer. Of course, beer, like wine, is a many-varied thing and the gamut of flavours runs from sweet and fruity to bitter and savoury. It seems the world has rediscovered the joys of beer and the explosion of awesome beer producers in just about every Western country spells great news for cheese lovers. Lager is the least successful style, when compared with more structured and flavourful ales, porters and stouts (not to mention all the beers that don't fit neatly into these pigeonholes and fall between the cracks). Think cloth-matured cheddar with a rich, savoury stout or a meaty washed rind with fruity, hoppy ale.

Cheese and whisky share a natural affinity.

Cheese and whisky share a natural affinity.

Whisky

Definitely worth a mention if only because of the number of extremely enjoyable evenings I have had with a few mates, a bottle of single malt and a board of cheese. The robust savouriness of whisky pairs beautifully with big, aged cheeses or funky washed rinds in a way that often surprises. Peat-heavy malts can be a bit tricky but having said that, when matched with a smoked cheese, the result can leave you giddy with happiness.

This is an edited extract from Milk. Made. by Nick Haddow published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $55 and is available in stores nationally.