A Crash Course in Pairing Wine and Cheese

Wine and cheese belong in the duo hall of fame along with peanut butter and jelly, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and jeans and a perfect white tee. Fortunately, putting together expert-level pairings is easier than you think.

Let’s start with three simple guidelines:

  1. Pair intense cheeses with intense wines
  2. Pair funkier cheeses with sweeter wines
  3. Pair richer cheeses with more acidic wines

Beyond that, we’re calling in an expert: Meet Sue Miller, cheesemaker at Birchrun Hills Farm, a small family-owned operation in Chester County, PA. Working alongside her husband and two sons, she breeds and raises the cows, cultivates the herd’s feed, makes the cheese, ages the cheese, and then gets it in the hands of hungry consumers via farmers’ markets and retail outlets.

“I think that’s really a special relationship to be in control of all of the parts,” says Miller. “When we’re farming the ground, we’re really thinking about the feed that our cows are going to be eating for the coming year, its impact on the quality of milk, and then how that will impact the cheese.”

Birchrun Hills’ most famous fromage is their rich, peppery Birchrun Blue, but they also produce washed rind cheeses, cheddars, cheese curds, and more.

“I don’t think Pennsylvania is really known as a cheese state, but it should be because we are a premier dairy state,” insists Miller. “We’ve had this renaissance of cheesemaking occurring here over the last 15 years, and the cheeses made in this region are on par with [those made in] Europe, Wisconsin, Vermont, and California.”

Miller is also involved with the Pennsylvania Cheese Guild, a four-year-old organization boasting 35 member cheesemakers. The website is a clearinghouse for those seeking local cheese, with links to contact information and websites. Many local dairies now offer online ordering and are able to ship cheese directly to people’s homes.

“[Another] really great place to find local cheese is at your local farmers’ market,” adds Miller. “You can come to the market and get yourself a nice wedge of cheese for $5. As a cheesemaker, we don’t want you to be intimidated when you come up to the table. I’d love for people to consider us their cheese guide or cheese librarian.”

Miller is also a passionate lover of Pennsylvania wines — especially those coming from her Chester County region — and is always excited to pair cheeses with local vintages. In addition to the edicts above, she has a few easy bits of advice. First, bring the cheese out an hour before eating to allow the aromas and flavors to relax. Second, don’t be afraid to take a risk.

“If you have a pairing of wine and cheese and it’s just not working, maybe throw in some dried figs or a drizzle of honey,” she says. “You can forage through the cupboards and your refrigerator, and just see what gets you excited. Sometimes the fun is the exploration.”

With a bit of Miller’s guidance, we’ve gone ahead and paired some of the world’s most popular cheese styles with Pennsylvania wines. Use these suggestions as a jumping-off point for your personal wine-and-cheese journey.

Here’s an occasion to employ rule number one. Aged cheddar, with its powerful bite and lactic tang, is certainly an intense cheese. Pair this classic with a bold red wine such as Petit Verdot. This tannic, acidic varietal boasts flavors such as tart blueberry and plum along with notes of leather. It’s up to the task of going toe-to-toe with cheddar.

While the most famous iteration of this style is probably Manchego, firm, slightly funky sheep’s milk cheeses are made around the world. The pleasures of these wheels come less from the texture and more from a complex combination of earthiness and sweetness — which is where this wine pairing comes in. Choose Lemberger, an acidic red with dark-fruit flavors to amplify the subtleties of the cheese.

Goat cheeses are beloved for their grassy funk, citric pucker, and earthy aroma. Choose a wine that will underline those flavors. Reach for Grüner Veltliner, an acidic white with citrus notes that will help the cheese’s character shine while cutting the richness. Crisp, vegetal Sauvignon Blanc is another obvious choice.

As mentioned above, creamy cheeses call for acidic wines. Our favorite option here is a dry sparkling wine, which will provide freshness and balance. Miller had her own thoughts. Birchrun Hills recently started producing Little Sharty, a Camembert-style soft cheese named for one of the farm’s beloved cows. “So that one is buttery and it has a lot of mushroom notes,” she says. “Boy, does that cheese love a lot of different wines made in Pennsylvania, from sparkling wines to anything really dry with high acidity. Even a Pinot Noir would be great because it plays the earthiness of the wine off of the earthiness of the mushroom notes.”

These stinky gems demand wines with both high acidity and a little sweetness. For example, Birchrun Hills’ entrant into the genre, Red Cat, is rich and meaty. Try a floral, off-dry white such as Gewürztraminer to cut through that savoriness or a strawberry-nosed rosé with a tannic backbone.

Alpine-style cheeses such as gruyere and Comté are beloved for their notes of toasted oats and brown butter. Often these wedges also boast a subtle sweetness that is downright addictive. “If it’s a cheese that’s a little bit leaner or mountain-style cheese, I want to go with lusher, rounder wine,” says Miller. “I’ll choose something a little bit softer and with more body.” And oak-aged Chardonnay, with its matching undercurrents of almond and butter, is a marvelous option.

As the maker of a beloved blue cheese, Miller is passionate about its versatility. “I used to always use port as my standby,” she recalls. “Because tawny port and blue cheese on a winter night — it doesn’t get any better. But I think there’s so much more to experience with blue cheese and wine. I love blue cheese with a Pinot Noir. I love it with an off-dry Riesling. And I would be remiss not to try a fruit-forward rosé with blue cheese, too.” Port does remain the classic companion with blue cheese: The dance of sweetness, creaminess, and stink is iconic. But sometimes a lighter option can bring out different elements in the cheese.