Cheese and Port is a fine tradition at Christmas, but there are some common misconceptions to navigate while trying to keep all of the family happy. Decanter's Harry Fawkes offers a helpful guide below.
Cheese and Port go hand-in-hand at many Christmas dinners, and this time of year accounts for much of the Port sales throughout the year.
The seasonality of Port is a real shame and wines lovers should remember that ‘Port is for life, not just for Christmas’, to borrow a well versed slogan.
Tawny Port and vintage Port are two separate styles. Both are wonderful digestifs after dinner parties throughout the year but, as many sommeliers point out, they are unsuitable as lone accompaniment to a cheese board.
When I first stopped to consider this point, I found it hard to comprehend for two reasons:
- your emotional response will recall fondly many glorious and happy moments sat with your loved ones after the traditional Christmas meal, considerably full, and reaching for a decanted bottle of Port to consume with the cheese board; a Port that you may have spent hours researching and choosing for this occasion.
- your wine loving persona has never considered that a rich vintage Port simply overpowers a creamy brie after a wonderful Christmas meal. All of that time spent seeking out, acquiring and assembling a cheese board might have been lost as the flavour of every cheese is engulfed with every sip of Port.
Christmas wines to match the meal or the company?
There is a more fundamental question to be answered here; do you choose your Christmas wines to match your meal or to match your company?
Whilst a Sauternes might be remarkable with blue cheese, abandoning the vintage Port and cheese board ritual would certainly cause much distress around my own family table. It is something only the Ebenezer of food and wine matching would consider.
This year, I’ve decided to experiment with a mix-and-match approach by serving a dry white, such as Chablis, along with a Tawny Port and a Vintage Port. That’s a lot of wine, but it can be achieved thanks to a large family.
Why there’s still room for Port and cheese matching
Here’s why these Ports will always have a place at our table alongside the cheese.
Vintage Port possesses extraordinary power, with deep fruit, spice, and chocolate. Full bodied with integrated tannin, vintage Port needs a powerful cheese to stand up to its strength. Anything mellow or subtle may get brushed aside.
Blue cheeses such as Stilton, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Fourme d’Ambert are the classic candidates, but a well-aged, powerful cheddar can also work well. Terrific additions to the cheese board can make all the difference to the vinous pairing. Red grapes, dried red and black fruit and walnuts will add an extra dimension to a Port and blue cheese pairing.
Tawny Ports change flavour profile depending on their age; at 10, 20 and 30 years old. The traditional 20 year-old version, which I will focus on, is usually sweeter with secondary characters coming to the fore. It is a superb alternative to other sweet dessert wines, such as Madeira or late harvest Riesling and Tokaji.
Mellow, rich and nutty, Tawny Port can be served slightly chilled and marries impressively well with salty, dry, hard cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan), cheddar, Comté and Pecorino.
Like the vintage Port and blue cheese, accompany these hard cheeses with Membrillo and dried winter nuts. The sweetness of the Membrillo quince paste balances the sweetness of the Port, and the nut blends seamlessly with the aged nuttiness of the Port.
Bonus tip: Dry white wine and cheese
A dry white with high acidity completes the picture, matching delightfully well with the rind and soft cheeses, such as Brie and Taleggio.
With this triage of wines around a plateful of cheese, you’re sure to keep the traditionalists around the table happy, whilst knowing you’ve also doffed your Christmas paper hat to sommeliers around the world and obeyed the complex, holy laws of food and wine matching.