cheese and wine plateHow do you marry cheese and wine? As with any hopeful pairing, a little counseling never hurts.

“I always think you should drink what you like and eat what you like and put them together in ways that create the most pleasure for you,” says Natalie MacLean, a wine expert who wrote Unquenchable and Red, White and Drunk All Over. “But I wouldn’t have a job if I didn’t give more guidelines for which wines work better with certain cheeses.”

Among useful features on her website, nataliemaclean.com, is the Wine & Food Matcher, which allows you to select a food — including more than 200 cheeses — and get wine pairing suggestions. Say you’ll be serving a French cheese such as Anneau du Vic-Bilh. Punch that in and get back two white wine suggestions: sauvignon blanc or semillon.

A good rule for matching cheese and wine is to play strength to strength, says Maggie Fox, wine buyer and wine club director for Gary’s Wine and Marketplace in Madison.

“You want strong wines with strong cheeses and lighter wines with lighter cheeses. If you have a smoky cheese, you want a smokier wine with it. You don’t want one to overpower the other. Stay away from bigger, more tannic wines if you want to be able to taste the cheese.”

Tannin is the substance that makes red wine come to life. You can gauge how much tannin is in a wine by how dry your mouth gets after you drink it. On the lighter side, the acidity that’s prevalent in most white wines makes your mouth water.

MacLean and Fox agree that mild cheeses like goat cheese and fresh mozzarella are among the easiest to match.

“They’re light flavors, they’re not going to compete with the wine,” MacLean says. “They go beautifully with a light, crisp, white wine like a sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio or riesling.”

MacLean has guidelines for cheese and wine pairings in her book, as well as on her website. Her favorite classic matches? Blue cheese or Stilton with port and Spanish sherry with Manchego. “They go well together,” she says.

For cheese tasting, Fox suggests sparkling wine as a palate cleanser. “It’s a good way to go from one cheese to another. You could also pair a sauvignon blanc with goat cheese or a nice, buttery chardonnay with a more buttery cheese.”

Sweet wines and cheeses are designed to go together. “Sauterne (a flavorful dessert wine) goes well with something honeyed or nutty in flavor. Lighter white dessert wines might go better with those types of cheeses than a tawny port.”

Another suggestion is to pair cheeses of a region with their neighboring wines. “Take Parmesan or Borgogna, you could pair them with Italian wines. You could do a Burgundy style or merlot if it’s not too tannic,” Fox says. “You could even do cabernet.”

Above all, Fox says, don’t get too wound up about pairings. “It’s all a matter of trial and error,” she says. “You can try to have pairings, but people are going to walk around with whatever’s in their glass and pick up what’s handy. You can’t force them to try their shiraz with their gouda.”

Printed with permission of the Star-Ledger.