We Dared a Professional to Pair a Wine With the World’s Stinkiest Cheese. Here’s What She Chose

Époisses cheese, considered the ultimate wine killer, meets its match.

One of the cheeses I love best is a real stinker to pair wine with. I mean that literally. How do you pair “barnyard” with wine? Or “stinky socks”? Of course, those descriptive words — which are pretty accurate in this case — do beg the question: Why would anyone let something that smells like that voluntarily pass their lips? Luckily, centuries ago, cheese helped create that weird category of foods that we don’t always love to smell but almost always love to eat.

So, the cheese in question? Époisses, this one from Fromagerie Berthaut. Made in the heart of France’s Burgundy region for hundreds of years, this luscious, creamy round comes in its own wooden box and is distinguished by a bright orange rind. That color comes about through certain beneficial bacteria working together with brine and a spritz of Marc de Bourgogne (a brandy-like drink that comes from the distillation of leftover seeds and skins after wine is made).

Although the axiom “what grows together goes together” often holds true, when I visited Berthaut several years ago, I discovered that the local wine was not a match. White Burgundy is legendary, but it was legendarily bad with Époisses. So, too, red Burgundy, from the other heralded grape of the region, Pinot Noir. In both cases, the cheese dominated, and the wines somewhat lost their souls.

I decided to hunt for a match for Époisses a little farther south, specifically in the Beaujolais region that straddles Burgundy and the Rhône. There, you’ll find prime Gamay-growing country. In particular, I sought out Chiroubles — a Beaujolais cru located at the highest altitudes of the region. Its wines sport flavors high on the red fruit scale but also with velvety tannins, characteristics I knew were key to finding Époisses’ match. (Side note: When it comes to pairing cheese and wine, intense tannins are never your friend.)

I found what I was looking for with a bottle of Daniel Bouland’s Chatenay Chiroubles, which is beautifully balanced and decidedly un-jammy, despite Gamay’s occasional reputation to the contrary. I took a sip, ecstasy all by itself. Then, the moment of truth: a spoonful of gooey Époisses. Oddly and wonderfully, the first flavor to pop out was something akin to Frangelico. I can’t explain why, but I got a sweet hazelnut flavor tinged with a little smokiness from the cheese. (The cheese is not smoked, but washed-rind cheeses like this one often have a bacon-like note.) Best of all, the wine held its own in the presence of this salty, slightly smoky, stinky cheese, its flavors reemerging after each bite — a feat that’s pretty rare with washed-rind cheeses. The wine was delicate yet strong, bright yet brooding, and pretty much perfect with the Époisses. I found the perfect match, and now I’m in love.

3 more great wine and cheese pairings

These pro-approved pairings are guaranteed to become mainstays at your cheese and wine gatherings.

The tried and true: triple-cream cheese and sparkling wine

The bubbles from a sparkler lift the rich cream off the tongue, clearing the decks for another sip, another bite, and, well, you get the idea. Altogether nirvana.

The unexpected: Ribera del Duero and aged Gouda

Spanish Ribera del Dueros, made from the Tempranillo grape, are big and bold, with plenty of rich red and black fruit, as well as surprising acidity and meaty tannins. Tannic wines can be unfriendly to cheese, particularly creamy cheeses, which tend to exaggerate rather than tame the tannins in wine; Brillat-Savarin and a big Napa Cab would be the height of decadence, but a low in the realm of cheese and wine pairings — as in, memorably bad. But choose a crystal-flecked, butterscotchy, superaged Gouda, especially with Tempranillo, and you come up with an intensely sweet-and-savory pairing like no other. The only downside is that it’s hard to stop eating (that is, if you consider that a downside).

The untraditional traditional: blue cheese and tawny port

There’s no cheese and wine pairing more beloved than blue cheese and port. This pairing, however, takes it a step further and names names: Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue and Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port. The combination of the port’s dried orange peel and nutty characteristics and the cheese’s smoky and salty flavors creates a pairing so memorable that it deserves to be in the annals of all-time classic cheese and wine pairings. Can’t find Smokey Blue? Look harder! But really, any earthy, salty blue will do the trick.

Laura Werlin has been the “cheezelady” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen since 2005. She is the James Beard Award–winning author of six books on cheese and is a sought-after corporate, festival, and virtual event speaker on all things cheese (and wine). 

Top Illustration by VISBII

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