Les Huit Familles de Fromage

Les Huit Familles de Fromage

If you want to know why France cuisine is always on top, you need to look no further than cheese.  Today, France has over 300 AOCs of cheese from every corner of the country (similar to wine’s AVAs). No other country comes close. In fact, one of Charles De Gaul’s greatest quotes was, “How do you govern a country that has 250 cheeses?” Well, now, as I said, they have over 300. So, for starters, it only makes sense that if you want to discuss cheeses, you should start with Les Huit Familles de Fromage: The 8 Families of Cheese.  Of course, in discussing these categories I’m going to give examples and talk about wine parings as well.  Finally, I will give you some of my rules of thumb and talk a little about the myth of cheese.

To start with, here are the 8 categories of cheese:

  1. Fresh cheese
  2. Soft cheese with natural rind
  3. Washed Rind cheeses
  4. Semi-hard cheeses
  5. Hard cheeses
  6. Goat cheese
  7. Blue cheese
  8. Processed or flavored cheese

There are of course crossovers of the categories. Add sheep’s milk, as well as a blend of different milks and things get interesting.

  1. Fresh cheeses are obvious. They are the simplest of the bunch, the curds and whey are separated, and you are finished. No other processing or aging needed. They have a high moisture content and are often wet. Examples from around the world include, Fontana, Fromage Blanc, Mozzarella, Ricotta, even some Mexican cheeses. Though goat cheese is a category of its own, it is often called a fresh cheese. 

Suggested Wine Pairing: Light, fresh cheeses call for light, bright wines such as Pinot Grigio, Alberino, Chenin Blanc, and of course Roses.  

  1. Soft cheeses with a natural rind have a lower moisture content then the fresh cheeses but are still very soft and have more moisture than the rest. They are aged in a rind for no more than a few months. These are some of the most famous and popular cheeses like Brie and Camembert and are often replicated by producers around the world. Cooleeney from Ireland and Chathams from Hudson Valley NY reproduce this style of cheese.

Suggested Wine Pairing: I love champagne with these cheeses, but also whites with a little more body pair well. I would recommend lightly oaked Chardonnay from Chablis, Verdejo and Gruner Veltliner.

  1. Washed Rind Cheeses are the stinky ones. They are made like the soft cheeses with a rind but instead of ripening the cheese from within the rind, they are washed with a bacteria brine (Brevibacterium linens) that ripen them from the outside in. Reblochon, Munster Limburger and Taleggio are some intense examples.

Suggested Wine Pairing: These cheeses are a tough match with wine but if you must have a wine with your favorite Reblochon, I would try very assertive whites like Gewurztraminer, Gruner Veltliner, or an Alsatian Riesling. 

  1. Semi Hard Cheese are firm cheeses in between the soft and hard cheeses in term of moister content. They are often pressed to ensure firmness and have some age to them. Some great cheeses are Swiss Gruyere Gouda and young Cheddars. 

Suggested Wine Pairing: We are starting to get into red wine territory now. I would recommend flavorful but moderately structured reds like Grenache and Chateauneuf du Pape, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel. 

  1. Hard cheeses are as they sound. They are hard and have the lowest moister content of all. Always pressed, cooked, and aged often for years at a time. They are big and intensely flavorful, my favorite examples include Parmesan, Old Amsterdam, Aged Cheddars, Pecorino and aged Manchego.

Suggested Wine Pairing: Definitely red wine. Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Hermatage, Reserve Tempranillo and aged Burgundy.

  1. Goat Cheese from goats’ milk is usually fresh or soft ripening cheeses. They have a distinguishing tart, tangy, and nutty texture. Once they form a rind, they are often shaped into logs or pyramids and can be wrapped in leaves or ash.  Saint-Maure de Touraine, Montrachevre, Crottin de Chavignol and Humboldt Fog are a few names. Cypress Grove in California is another.

Suggested Wine Pairing: In my opinion, Sauvignon Blanc is the single greatest wine to pair with Goat Cheese. They grew up together in the Loire Valley and really mirror their tangy herbal characters. Crisp Rose is the next best thing, although a lot of winos like merlot or Cabernet Franc with Chevre. But try Sauvignon Blanc first and foremost.

  1. Blue Cheese are named for the blue streaks that are formed in the cheese.  Cheese makers introduce a mold to the curd before it is formed into wheels. As the cheese ages, the cheese makers insert spikes or rods into the cheese, creating veins where oxygen can flow and allow the mold to grow.  Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Stilton and Morbier are some of the best-known Blue Cheeses.

Suggested Wine Pairing: Extremely intense and salty, these are pretty much designed for dessert wines like Sauternes and Port. Also, the sweeter the better Rieslings. 

  1. Processed or Flavored Cheese Cheeses from all over the world can be spiked with numerous flavors, for example, Peppercorns or Mushrooms can be added. I have had cheese with sage, cumin, rosemary, caraway seeds and of course truffles. Cheese can also be smoked. All to add to the diversity of flavors cheese can give us. 

Suggested Wine Pairing: I struggle to pair wines with many of these cheeses, maybe because I am a bit of a purist. Like washed rinds, I would suggest pairing with Gewurztraminer or Gruner Veltliner.


Three Rules of Wine and Cheese Pairings at Upchurch Vineyard

Rules are made to be broken and I have done this many times. However, if you want some guidance, follow these rules and you can’t go wrong:

No washed rind. These smelly wines are too much for fine wine aromas and flavors. There are mild exceptions, but do yourself a favor in general and stay away from them.
No blue cheese except when drinking dessert wines. Again, these overpower fine dry wines.
No flavored cheese.  Here you must worry about both the cheese and the added flavors for pairings. Truffles are great with Pinot, but not with the soft ripening triple cream cheeses they are often put in. For me, cheeses with caraway seeds and cumin, or smoked cheeses are better served with beer. In Belgium, they often serve you a chunk of local cheese with beer that also has all kinds of flavors.
Locality works.  Just as certain food and wine combos grew up together, so have cheese and wine pairings. Over decades, and even centuries, people have come to know and rely on these combinations because they are wonderful together. As I mentioned Sauvignon Blanc and Chevre are both from the Loire valley and are perfect for each other. You can’t visit Spain without having tempranillo and aged Manchego. Bordeaux and cheeses from the Pyrenees nearby like Tomme des Pyrenees. Look for these pairings and you never can go wrong
80% of all cheeses classically go with white wine. Red wines don’t pair with all cheeses.  The cheese police won’t come get you if you but try some of your favorite whites and cheese. 
The riper the better for cheese. No way. Cheeses, like wine, have a period when they are at their best. Many wines require no aging (also like wine), while over-ripe wines are unpleasant. Don’t be afraid to ask your Cheese Monger what condition is of the cheese you are looking at. You can even ask him what cheeses are at their peak and choose from them as I do. 

If you live with a pretty Dutch girl like I do, you are going to learn a lot about cheese.  She even put Parmesan on top of our dog, Paco’s, food to his delight.  Between life with her and a life in wine, I have learned a lot about cheese, so I thought I would pass it on...  Feel free to experiment and most of all, enjoy the experience!


Chris Upchurch