Andrew Polmear

Wine to go with cheese

Most of us are finding ourselves eating at home a lot more than in pre-Covid-19 times. In my household it means we eat a lot more cheese than usual, since we consider a cheese course an important part of a proper meal at home. With the cheese it’s very tempting to continue drinking whatever wine we’ve already opened. I think we can do better than that. Here are my thoughts.

When it comes to wine that goes with cheese, it’s got to be red. The only exception is a heavy sweet wine, like Sauternes, that goes wonderfully with very tasty blue cheeses. Roquefort is the usual example. That aside, any red will do, although in principle the stronger the cheese the more powerful the wine. Red is good but it’s not perfect.

To move up a notch we have to go to fortified wines. A dry austere Amontillado sherry is thrilling with any cheese, although it will dwarf a mild cheese, for which you might try a Fino. For those who get confused by the different types of sherry, remember that sherry is made at first like any white wine, but then left in barrels open to the air. If the wine develops a creamy layer of yeast on top, called flor, it becomes a Fino – dry, light in colour with a sharp yeasty tang. If the flor dies off or is killed off by adding alcohol, the wine is exposed to air and darkens, developing that distinctive, austere, almost bitter, nutty flavour with overtones of tobacco and spices from the oak barrel.  That’s an Amontillado. An Oloroso, that’s an even darker sherry which never had flor on top, would be marvellous too, but it, too, must be bone dry. They are much harder to find. Don’t use sweet sherry, not even anything with the word “cream” in the title. Save that for the pudding.

Equally wonderful would be a Tawny Port, again because it’s got that austere dry nutty, leathery tang. Ruby port wouldn’t do. It hasn’t been oxidised so it has a rich fruity flavour that goes with fruity puddings but not cheese. Ruby port is either matured in huge barrels or in tanks or even in the bottle. Tawny ports start off like ruby ports but spend longer – much longer – in much smaller barrels, slowly oxidising, turning brown and leathery, losing all that fruitiness but developing that spicy, nutty, leathery essence.

If we were really celebrating I’d ask for a glass of Madeira. Malmsey is my favourite but I’d settle for any of them. It’s not unlike port in the way it’s made but it’s from a different grape, different terroir and, unlike port, it’s gently heated while oxidising. Like port it needs to be at least 10 years old; then it’s heavenly.

But how can anyone manage to drink wine with the meal and a fortified wine with the cheese? The secret is to stick to small amounts. You only need a mouthful of the fortified wine. Then put the stopper back on and keep it somewhere cool. That way you’ll stay within your 14 units a week. And the joy of these fortified wines is they will last for months once opened. After all, at Downton Abbey they sit for years in decanters on the sideboard without going off.

Andrew Polmear

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