Port and cheese is one of the classic food and wine pairings. It generally marks a moment in the evening when things become more relaxed and conversation flows. For many it’s a crucial part of Christmas but, frankly, it adds joy to special occasions throughout the year. And there’s good reason a glass of port and some cheese helps lift the occasion. Port offers an array of comforting flavours, from sweet and fruity to rich, concentrated and nutty. Common port flavours include ripe berries, plums, figs, raisins and toasted almonds, while cheese has a savoury and sometimes salty tang that contrasts beautifully with the port’s sweetness or matches its power.
As a practical guide to help amplify our enjoyment, we’ve picked a few port styles and readily available ports from leading port lodges and matched them with a range of widely available cheeses. To add to the fun, we have suggested some chocolate matches too. But, fear not, most ports are very versatile and rules are there to be broken. Ruby port has a fruit-forward profile while Tawny has a nuttier flavour, so it’s understandable that both should pair well, for example, with milk chocolate.
Reserve Ruby Port – such as Fonseca Bin 27
Cheese pairing: Camembert, Brie, goat’s cheese, Red Leicester or Manchego
Chocolate pairing: Milk chocolate
Why? This port is rich but elegantly smooth, softened and rounded by its aging in large wooden vats, with opulent but vibrant cherry, cassis and plum fruit sweetness, a lovely intensity and subtle spicy tannins. It has a creamy, restrained finish which is particularly good at highlighting the creaminess, richness and saltiness of cheese. Indeed it marries superbly with full flavoured, zingy, yeasty, creamy cheeses like a charcoal-coated Golden Cross goats’ cheese or a nutty but quite sweet artisan Manchego whose complex flavours pair magically with quince jelly or the cherry jam fruit in the port. Valencay, Brie and Camembert de Normandie are excellent alternatives. When it comes to chocolate matching, milk chocolate provides a lovely pairing for this style of port as the fresh fruit-forward sweetness in the port goes well with the chocolate. It’s not for no reason that chocolate covered raisins are so moreish.
Buy it: Fonseca Bin 27, RRP £14.00, available at Majestic or Virgin Wines
If you like this you will also love: Fonseca Terra Prima Organic, RRP £18, available at Waitrose or Abel & Cole
LBV Port – such as Fonseca Unfiltered LBV 2015
Cheese pairing: Goat’s milk cheese, Red Leicester or Cheddar.
Chocolate pairing: High cocoa chocolate or truffles
Why? Late Bottled Vintage is the classic all-year-round port made from the grapes of a single year, aged in barrel for between four and six years and then released when ready to drink. This port style, with its concentration and silky purity, makes an excellent match for goat’s milk cheeses and full-flavoured Cheddar. The earthy, buttery, tangy flavours of Cheddar matches superbly with the chewy tannins and liquorice and chocolate notes of LBV, as well as its big plummy, red berry opulence. The LBV’s richness also merges wonderfully with the rich, tangy flavours of cheese like a crumbly Valencay. For the chocolate match, the bitter intense flavours of, say, Green & Black’s high cocoa chocolate marries superbly with the sweet, fruit-forward, relatively lively LBV. More delicate truffles do the trick equally well.
Buy it: Fonseca Unfiltered LBV 2015, RRP £16.50, available at The Whisky Exchange or Saxtys
If you like this you will also love: Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage 2016/17, RRP £15, available at Waitrose and all supermarkets
Aged Tawny Port – such as Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny
Cheese pairing: Farmhouse Cheddar, Gruyère Premier Cru or a creamy blue cheese
Chocolate pairing: Praline chocolates, plain milk chocolate, walnut studded brownies or nutty truffles
Why? Aged Tawnies, which are matured in big oak casks and characterised by an attractive russet colour, rich aromas of dried fruit and a smooth, silky, dry fruit palate, are a must for Christmas, but they’re equally delicious whatever the season. Taylor’s 10yo shows off the concentrated sugars of prunes and sultanas at the same time as nutty, spicy, Christmas-like flavours. And the finish is long, intense and delightfully fresh. Older Tawnies (Taylor’s 20yo, say) add further layers of complexity. Aged Tawny is a mellow, harmonious match with the fruity, nutty character of a high quality Gruyère or alpine cheese like Appenzeller. The salty, nutty, slightly crystalline qualities of these cheeses amplify the toffee, burnt sugar notes in the wine. Also good are a mature farmhouse Cheddar, a soft sensual blue cheese like Beauvale or a complex, nutty aged Gouda. For the chocolate match, it’s the nuttier notes of the Tawny that are the key. Hence things like walnut-studded brownies or nutty truffles work a treat.
Buy it: Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny, RRP £22, available at Sainsburys or Waitrose
If you like this you will also love: Paxtons 10 Year Old Tawny, £24.95 at Paxton & Whitfield
Vintage Port – such as Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage 2004/2008
Cheese pairing: Stilton, Roquefort or Shropshire Blue
Chocolate pairing: 85% cocoa chocolate, dark chocolate desserts and dark chocolate containing walnuts or hazelnuts
Why? The completely harmonious pairing of powerful, complex vintage port and mature, strong blue cheeses such as Stilton is one of the classic food and wine combinations. The soft buttery texture, mellow character and piquancy of the cheese, together with a slightly sweet aftertaste, matches perfectly with the dark berry fruit, depth and the powerful, majestic flavours of Vintage port. We love the explosion of warm plum and cherry jam notes (and hints of coffee and violets) in the Fonseca Guimaraens Vintages which are made in the years when the wines are more supple and ready to drink earlier. They accentuate the tangy salt flavours in the cheese superbly. Alternative cheese matches include Cashel Blue and Roquefort, which was apparently Julius Caesar’s favourite cheese. Older, classic vintages like the Fonseca 1985 For chocolate matching, pair with dense, rich dark chocolate dishes like flourless chocolate cake or chocolate pots. With high cocoa (85%) chocolate, walnuts and dried fruit, the integrated tannins, rich fruit, spice and chocolate palate of vintage port will simply add even more dimension to the experience.
Buy it: Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage 2004/08, RRP £30, available at Master of Malt or Mr Wheeler
If you like this you will also love: Taylor’s Quinta de Vargellas 2012, RRP £32, available at Majestic or Waitrose
White Port – such as Taylor’s Chip Dry
Cheese pairing: Hard ewe’s milk cheese or Manchego Curado PDO
Nut pairing: Salted Macademia nuts or roasted Marcona almonds
Why: For something completely different but truly delicious. Good white port delivers a wonderful balance of ripe fruit, delicate citric acidity and a delightful nuttiness from ageing in oak vats. Best of all, these two ports boast a crisp, dry finish. Serve slightly chilled or as a longer refreshing drink, with tonic and a sprig of mint or orange zest. And for something to match it with, look no further than a beautiful hard goats’ cheese like Manchego Curado – aged for nine months which sees its sweet grassy notes develop into nuttiness.
Buy it: Taylor’s Chip Dry, RRP £14, available at VirginWines or Waitrose
If you like this you will also love: Fonseca Siroco White Port, RRP £18.50, available at Hay Wines or Saxtys
Food pairing with port - Tips and advice
- Try the port first before the cheese. Your palate will be cleaner and more receptive to the port before it is coated with a creamy cheese.
- Room temperature nowadays is generally too warm for port. Port will often benefit from a short time in the fridge (particularly tawnies). But don’t forget to take the cheese out of the fridge in advance!
- While you can keep a decanted bottle of vintage port a few days, the aromas are far more expressive on day one.
- A Tawny port can be served by the glass for several weeks after the cork is pulled.
- A wine that matches well with chocolate should exceed the chocolate’s sweetness.
- The bittersweet nature of a high cocoa chocolate really brings out the sweetness in a vintage port.
- Non-classic port vintages will improve for 30-40 years but probably not longer.
- Why is stilton so good at Christmas? A good stilton will have been aged for 12 weeks. It comes from milk that is the product of the ‘second flush’ grass you get in September, which bumps up the fat content in the milk.