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Ask the JWU Expert: How to Pair Wine + Cheese

Wine and cheese pairings lined up with pairing notes.

JWU Providence Associate Professor Ed Korry breaks down the elements that make wine + cheese such perfect BFFs. | Photo: Ed Korry

Cheese, glorious cheese! Perfect by itself — but even better with a glass or two of wine.

But the whole process of creating perfect wine + cheese pairings can be daunting. There’s a lot of confusing information out there. So many rules! So many contradictions! What pairing principles are the most sound?

We asked Associate Professor Ed Korry, Beverage and Dining Service department chair at JWU Providence (and Board President of the Society of Wine Educators), to cut through the white noise and offer a pairing primer.

First, we asked for his Top 5 Best Practices for Pairing:

  1. Because of higher acidity levels, white wines tend to pair better than dry reds.
  2. Reds taste really fine with many cheeses, but you cannot really tell much about the wine so quality wines lose their distinctiveness.
  3. Sparkling wines are great with creamy cheeses (brie and triple creams, etc.).
  4. Structured red wines are better with aged cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano or aged Comté.
  5. Fortified or sweet wines such as Sherries, Ports and Sauternes pair better with stronger cheeses, including blue-veined cheeses.

However, Korry is quick to point out that the “rules” of pairing are not as simple as Great Wine + Perfectly Ripe Cheese = Nirvana.

Enjoy the wine you like and manipulate the food or cheese.” 

There’s personal preference to keep in mind, as well as the fact that we all taste differently — and our individual-as-a-thumbprint sense of taste, smell and flavor sensitivity factors heavily as we nibble and sip.

“Cause and effect [of food tastes on wine] is real,” notes Korry. “But whether or not you like [a particular pairing] is individualized.”

With that in mind, he offers some context that can help us better understand all the chemistry that goes into making wine and cheese eternal BFFs.

1) Flavor is the biggest component in the minds of chefs and consumers. Korry defines it as “a combination of taste, smell, tactile sensation, physical features such as temperature and chemesthesis (spiciness) and tannin.” (Tannins are the naturally-occurring textural element that makes wine taste dry.) But it is the taste components that influence each other the most.

2) The 5 tastes that influence our perception of flavor are:

  • Sweetness
  • Sourness (acidity): Tartaric, malic, citric (succinic), lactic
  • Saltiness
  • Bitterness: The role of tannins and other astringent elements
  • Umami: When proteins break down into glutamates. Examples: Anchovies, fermented soy sauce and aged Parmigiano Reggiano.
  • Fat is also starting to gain acceptance as a 6th taste.

3) Korry’s “cause and effect” rules for pairings:

  • Sweet and umami foods reduce the perception of a wine’s flavors and make wine it taste (acidity or tannin) stronger. (Taste refers to sweet, salty, bitter, umami and fat.)
  • Acidic and salty foods make wine taste milder and heighten flavors.
  • Bitter foods will accentuate bitterness in wine. (Young tannic wines or wines made from unripe grapes will have bitterness.)
  • Salt reduces bitterness and heightens flavor.
  • Fats diminish tannins but the umami can overwhelm less intense wines.
  • Heat or spiciness accentuates tannin or alcohol.

Finally, his “new rules” for creating a personalized palette for your palate:

  • We are all different and taste differently.
  • It’s the FOOD that’s the challenge, not the wine.
  • We have to focus on TASTE, chemesthesis (spiciness) and tannins (astringency), not flavors.
  • Taste refers to sweet, salty, bitter and umami.
  • Sweetness, bitterness, umami and heat in food can be villains (that is, they can have an unpleasant effect if they are out of balance).
  • Acidity and salt are friends to wine.
  • Enjoy the wine you like and manipulate the food or cheese.

Portions of this post have been adapted from Korry’s August presentation at the American Cheese Society’s Cheese Camp, held in Providence, RI.

Left: Miles of cheese at the American Cheese Society Festival of Cheese. Right: Tasting Harbison and Bonne Bouche at 4 different ages at Cheese Camp. | Photos: Louis Risoli of Boston’s L’Espalier Restaurant.

A few of the more than 1,700 cheeses at the American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese. Photo: Louis Risoli

Topics: Experts