Pairing with the Reds
Red wines get most of their color during fermentation, when the natural heat generated by the fermenting process extracts the color from the grape skin. As a result, red wines almost always have some degree of tannin in them, which makes them a harder match for cheese. When aged in oak barrels, red wines will have rounder, more subtle tastes. When aged in stainless steel vats, the flavors will be steelier, more fruity and simpler.
The name Merlot, rolls off your tongue almost like the word mellow, and that's exactly what it is: a mellow, friendly sort of wine. The grapes are dark blue and relatively thin skinned, which means they contain low levels of tannin, and ripen early. Merlots are low in acidity and have tones of plum, black cherry, currant, violet, and rose (some say Merlot smells like fruitcake). Merlots have a soft, almost velvety mouthfeel, and usually have medium-high levels of alcohol.
Sheep's-milk cheeses, with their high fat and mellow nutty flavors, work well with Merlots. Try Ossau Iraty, Manchego, or Roncal. A particularly fruity Merlot pairs well with a mild Cheddar such as Lancashire, or Cheshire.
The main difference between a red and a rose is the length of time the skins ferment with the juice. For roses, that time is very short, resulting in lower tannin, less fruitiness, and a brisker mouthfeel. Pair roses with lighter cheeses that don't have much fruitiness, like Jarlsberg or fresh Asiago, or a young Gouda such as Vlaskaas.
The Pinot Noir grape is thin skinned and delicate, requiring a long, cool growing season to ripen. The payoff is in the texture, which is full and light at the same time, almost like liquid silk. High in alcohol, without being too acidic or tannic, Pinots can be wonderful matches for many different types of cheese.
Play off the Pinot Noir's aromas of raspberries, cherries, and subtle bits of smoke when pairing Pinot Noirs with cheese. Go for medium levels of complexity to full complexity, and lean slightly to the sweet end of things. Antique Gruyere, Redwood Hill Bucheret, Piave, and Alsacian Muenster are all worth a try.
Syrahs come from black, thick-skinned grapes that thrive both in cool climates and on sunny slopes. Young Syrahs are deeply colored, tannic, and have a distinct spiciness. Aged Syrahs are fruitier than they are spicy, with blackberry and plum tones, and often have a bit of smokiness about them. They tend to have medium acidity and high alcohol, which leaves a clean but round feel in your mouth. Pair Syrahs with flavorful, fruity, and creamy cheese, such as Beaufort, Comte, and aged Goudas.
If you're looking for tannin and acidity look no further than Sangiovese, but know that good vintners working with this grape balance its tannic acidity by bringing out whole orchards of fruit. You'll find deep cherry tones, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries in this wine. Sangioveses have medium to high alcohol, and are relatively dry. This is a traditional wine of Italy. Try pairing it with some of Italy's favorite cheeses: Taleggio, Pecorino Renero, and Piave.
Wine tannin makes your mouth pucker and feel stripped of all its moisture. Salt accentuates this effect, which is why cheese (most of which is high in salt) rarely pairs well with high-tannin wines. Grape skins and seeds ferment with red wine (and are later skimmed off), giving red wine its color and tannin.
Cabernet grapes are small, black, and very tough skinned, and they produce some of the most tannic wine. They are rarely intended to be drunk as young wines; instead, the best Cabernet Sauvignons are aged until their tannin mellows out, which allows deeper flavors to emerge. In youth, a Cabernet Sauvignon will have tones of black currants, bell peppers, chocolate, and spice, and be very acidic and tannic. As it ages, hints of tobacco, blackberries, and other, deeper flavors emerge.
The high tannin of a Cabernet makes pairing cheese difficult, and a matter of individual taste and experimentation. But the complexity of this wine means you can pair it with some of your favorite, most complex cheeses. Try robust, sweet, glossy sorts of cheese like Black Foil Appenzeller, a medium-aged Epoisse (too aged, and the salt will clash with the tannin), Roquefort, or Zamorano.
Zinfandel comes from the Primitivo grape and varies considerably depending on the objectives of the winemaker. The results can be light and almost simple in taste, with high acids and tannins, or complex, fruity, and spicy. Most Zinfandels are high in both acid and alcohol.
Zinfandels are big wines that need to be paired with flavorful, robust cheeses. Try antique Gruyere, Ossau Iraty, Roncal, Montgomery's Cheddar, and Garrotxa.