Mike Bennie is a journalist and wine communicator, but he’s also one of the founders of Drink Easy, alongside Tamrah Petruzzelli and Duncan Welgemoed. The boundary-pushing Drink Easy Awards (we manage their social content, check them out here!) celebrates Australia's liquid diversity and creativity by recognising the way we consume drinks is constantly changing and evolving. Wine matching, as it used to be, was probably a bit too reductive, elitist and created in isolation from real dining experiences, which is much more diverse than it used to be. Today, we’re much more aux fait with pairings that are innovative in terms of flavours, texture and aroma, not just protocol.
“What we’re trying to capture with Drink Easy,” says Mike, “is how people live. Drink Easy is distilling the inherit way we live, breath, drink and eat.”
In short, Mike knows a lot about booze and eating. And so, when he casually dropped the following news one Friday night as team Buffet sat in Mike’s secret office enjoying a few rounds of oysters and saké, we sat up and listened:
“Pairing cheese with wine is at the bottom of the list of things you should be pairing.”
I grew up in a tiny country called France (look it up) and let me tell you – where I come from, pairing wine with cheese is serious business. It’s one of the oldest relationships in the world, a bit like Romeo and Juliet, if you will. Inseparable!
Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Let’s start at the beginning. Why are we all pairing wine with cheese anyway?
Culturally, a region’s wine nearly always complements the produce it grows or raises. Take the Loire region’s bright Sancerre with its delicious local seafood, for instance, Burgundy’s pinot noir with its famous ‘Poulet de Bresse’ or Tasmanian oysters with sparkling wine. Matching particular wines with cheeses from the same region where they are produced – it just makes sense.
But today, If you have friends coming over for drinks, you’ll put out a cheese board with cheeses from a broad offering (Spain, France, Australia, …) and a few wines to drink with it, probably not really looking into the origins of either, or if they match.
But... what if we were wrong all this time?
According to Mike, the lactic build up you get in your palate when eating cheese ends up dulling the flavour of wine. So we should look to cut through the creaminess of cheese with something higher in acidity or alcohol. The idea is to refresh your palate and cut the cheese’s texture so your palate doesn’t become overwhelmed by too many heavy, cloying flavours.
I have to admit, even if I don’t want to believe it, this makes perfect sense. Even Mike admits, “suggesting alternative pairings with cheese is quite confronting, people often think I’m crazy.”
The good news is, this bombshell opens up a whole new world of pairing possibilities.
Whatever you pair cheese with should complement and enhance its flavour. A bit like when you match cheese with nuts, quince paste or honey. If you pair a light, fresh cheese with a heavy red wine, as some tend to do, you start to lose some of the nuances of the wine but also of the cheese! We don’t want to overwhelm something that is delicate and full of flavour, do we?
It’s probably best we leave things to the expert. Here are Mike’s alternate suggestions to vin et fromage.
Hard cheeses: Manchego, Gruyere, Parmigiano, Mimolette
Pair with: Whisky
Sip your whisky with an ice cube to slightly dilute the alcohol and reveal its sweet, nutty and caramel-tinged flavours. The heat in the spirit won’t overwhelmed the taste of these salty, hard cheeses but complement it. The alcohol in the whisky will prepare and clear your palate for more cheese (yay!) and will perfectly accompany the nutty, savoury ones with a harder texture.
Slightly matured cheeses, or washed rinds: Saint Nectaire, Morbier, Stinking Bishop, Taleggio or Tasmanian Heritage Red Square
Pair with: Liqueurs, Aperitifs, digestives such as Calvados, Amaro, or light Vermouth
Liqueurs, aperitifs and digestifs such as amaro or vermouth are mostly herbal, spiced, can be sweet, dry, savoury and are typically aromatic, reinforcing the flavour of the cheese (rich, creamy with quite an earthy or fruity flavour). Look for aperitifs that aren’t too bitter, as these will counterbalance the strong aroma of those cheeses.
Goat’s cheeses, soft cheeses or hard- to medium-firm cheeses: Tomme de chèvre, Sainte Maure, Brie, Camembert
Pair with: Sherry
Even if considered as part of the wine family, Sherry is a lightly-fortified and aged wine that is produced in a traditional yet complicated way. There is a wide range of Sherry available depending on what you like.
Fino Sherry is probably the freshest you’ll find - delicate, crisp and dry, often with saline or sea spray characters, bright acidity and some yeasty flavours.
If you’re after something stronger, try Amontillado which is slightly higher in alcohol with complex flavours and a beautiful amber colour. Pedro Ximénez, often described as ‘liquid Christmas pudding’, will be perfect for you if you like something quite sweet.
Soft, gooey cheeses, hard and matured cheeses or those made with goat’s milk will be delicious with any and all Sherry.
Strong-flavoured cheeses: Smoked Cheddar, Gorgonzola, Pecorino, Blue Cheese
Pair with: Sour or Farmhouse Beer
The idea with this match is to look for contrast. Sour beer’s strong yeasty character, bitterness and mouth-puckering tartness work very well with cheeses which have a stronger flavour, such as blue or aged hard cheeses. Not a big fan of beer? Farmhouse cider matched with a smoked cheese is a great option.
Nearly every cheese
Pair with: Pure rice saké
You can’t go wrong with saké! The lactic, almost cheesy character of this Japanese rice spirit creates a great synergy with cheese – it will match well with anything you throw at it. Mike recommends seeking out interesting expressions from artisan, Junmai (Pure Rice) Sake producers – these more esoteric styles are often produced from rice which is less polished than usual sake, and reflects a more natural expression of rice varieties, often more grainy and pleasingly acidic.
Alternatively, look for citrusy flavours to refresh your palate and act as a nice and disruptive complement to your fromage.
Believe it or not but Mike’s favourite matching on earth is Comté and Vin Jaune, a typical regional combination in the region of Jura, France. Vin Jaune is a dry, aged white wine that could be compared to a dry fino sherry with walnut, spices and burned bread flavours. Comté cheese is often described as one of the finest cheeses in the world with some amazing brown-butter and roast-nut aromas with a sweet finish.
Let’s be real here, have you ever found a better combination than bread and butter?
“There’s no strict rule to it but when you have a cheese culture and a wine culture in the same region that’s when the marriage really comes to life,” says Mike. “Because it’s always been like that.”
Last but not least, do not follow any rules (Mike insists on this one)!
Be curious and adventurous! Try new things and consume what you like and, more importantly, enjoy the company around you. As Mike says, “Let the atmosphere dictate the experience and enjoy what comes out of it!”