Charcuterie is our favorite part of the meal. That’s because we’re always hungriest at the start, but also because charcuterie offers such a wide spectrum of flavors. Though these flavors perk the palate, it’s challenging to find one wine that pairs well with, for instance, fresh and ripe cheeses, cured meat and condiments.
Joe Fiely is corporate wine ambassador for Francesca’s Restaurant Group. We ran into him at Davanti Enoteca with some questions about how to pair wines with charcuterie.
Generally, what pairs best with charcuterie—white or red wine?
I love white wines with cheese, in part because they work with a much wider range of cheeses. My favorites are crisp, young whites paired with goat cheese; slightly sweet, off-dry whites with blue cheese; aged and oxidized whites with aged cheeses. With white wines, it’s hard to go wrong.
In my experience red wine and cheese pairings tend to be more specific. For example, Sangiovese is delicious with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but wouldn’t be a good fit with young goat cheese. In general though, white wine fruit profiles tend to be more cheese-friendly.
I think in general people are conditioned to think red wine when pairing with meat, which isn’t wrong. A Cabernet Sauvignon and steak work beautifully together, but it’s not good for all charcuterie. Cured, artisanal meats are very different from a thick, grilled slab of beef.
If a customer says, “I like only reds”—and there are a lot of people who feel that way—what do you do?
To start, I would ask the guest “What kind of red wines do you like?” People that “only like reds” are usually very specific about what they like, whether it’s soft, fruity Zins, cherry French Pinot Noirs, earthy Cabs, tannic Nebbiolos or spicy Syrahs.
With most reds, you’ll be safest with prosciutto di Parma and other jamon products. Spicy, juicy, fruit-forward reds—like Zins, new world Pinot Noirs and Shiraz—work best with spicy meats.
We’re fans of cheese with big smells, like Epoisses de Bourgogne and Pont l’Evêque. What should I drink with those stinkers?
I prefer fruity, juicy, low-tannin reds such as Zinfandels and Primitivos with ripe, stinky cheeses. However, off-dry, slightly sweet whites that have a honey-like characteristic—such as Rieslings, demi-sec Chenin Blancs—are even more delicious!
Do highly tannic wines pair well with cheese?
Highly tannic wines are undesirable with young, wet, milky cheeses. Tannins bind with proteins and creamy fats leaving a dry, chalky, astringent flavor in the mouth. As cheese ages, it loses water, becoming more intense and drier which works better with tannic wines. A favorite of mine is aged Pecorino paired with Barolo.
Let’s get very specific. I’ll name some charcuterie items and you tell me what pairs best with each. First one: goat cheese
With goat cheese, I’d choose Sauvignon Blanc. The milk for this cheese is tangy and grassy. Sauvignon Blanc, like from the Loire in France, has these same characteristics, which results in a perfect wine and cheese pairing.
With blue cheese, Dr. Loosen Riesling. Mediterranean Blue is robust, creamy, rich and nutty so you want something with lower alcohol, that’s off-dry or slightly sweet. Dr. Loosen Riesling from the Mosel River area in Germany is sublime, like drinking ripe Georgia peaches and honey, which pairs well with ripe blue cheese.
Prosciutto di Parma?
Lambrusco. Prosciutto di Parma is made from special pigs that feed on acorns and corn. The wines of this region are from Lambrusco or Sangiovese grapes making either choice easy and delicious. What grows together, goes together. Lambruscos have a slight frizzante (fizz) and lower alcohol with a bright, fruity (not sweet!) flavor working with the salty, sweet, rich flavor of the pork.
Sean Minor Napa red blend. Bresaola is air-dried beef, rich, a little gamey and slightly salty. Let’s give this meat a big, juicy, dark fruity red with soft tannins. I like the over-the-top, rich blackberry, plummy blend from Sean Minor that adds fruit (not sugar!) to the salty, dried beef.
Would your choice of wine to pair with cheese be different after dinner as opposed to before dinner?
Yes! Before dinner I would choose crisper, brighter, more acidic, lower-alcohol wines to get the palate going and stimulate the appetite. After dinner, I would move into dessert wines, sweeter wines, port-like or fortified wines and pick cheeses to match.
Based on conversations with Fiely, we developed a strategy for pairing with charcuterie. We order three glasses for both of us (maybe two whites and a red) and have the sommelier split the pours so we’re each getting the equivalent of one and one-half glasses of wine. This selection of white and red wines, between which we alternate sips, makes it easier to pair with most charcuterie.