As often as wine and cheese are thrown together, you'd think they'd all get along, like super best friends. But cheese is alive and mutable, as is wine. Sometimes, their strong, delicious personalities clash in endless arguments of acidity and funk or butterfat and tannin. But common ground isn't so hard to find. Here are four odds-on couples to stow in the mental Rolodex:
Madeira and blue: Like the toffee and apricots that Wallingford's Eva Restaurant serves with its fancy blue cheese flan, this match-up commingles the buttery flavors in both the dessert wine and the cheese, contrasts the sharp taste of the blue mold with Madeira's bright sweetness, and wields serious acidity to clean up after all these strong flavors. The chemistry works best when you pair a medium-rich Madeira and a saltier, nutty blue such as chestnut-leaf-wrapped Valderon from Spain, Gorgonzola dolce, or the blues from Oregon's Rogue Creamery.
Oregon pinot gris and aged cheddar: A straight-up combination of salty and sweet. Pinot gris from Oregon usually reminds me of pears and has a soft acidity, as opposed to the zing of an apple. When I say cheddar, though, I don't mean those plastic-asphyxiated loaves in the refrigerated section but the real stuff—salty, creamy, crumbly aged cow's milk. Many American artisan producers emulate the traditional cheddar from the English village of the same name; try Vermont's pungent, nutty four-year-aged Grafton or the creamy bite of Fiscalini Farmhouse from Modesto, Calif.
Crémant and triple-cream: High in butterfat, triple-cream cheeses have a soft outer rind and become liquid when left at room temperature for a few hours—the most available examples are Fromage d'Affinois, Saint-André, and certain Bries. You want some acidity to cut through that richness, but any sparkler that's too dry will taste shrill. The tart apple flavors of crémant (French sparkling wine made outside the Champagne region) are the perfect foil for those in a triple-cream, and the two match each other for decadence.
California zinfandel and snow-white chèvre: Many people think zippy goat's milk cheeses only prefer bone-dry blonds, but the chèvre-zin connection strikes an unlikely accord. The spicy, concentrated prune and dried-cherry flavors of zin don't bring their own baggage of mouth-drying tannins, so what you get when you pair the wine with chèvre is a combo as tasty as berry compote on cheesecake, with a natural but not cloying sweetness.
What you want to avoid with most cheeses are wines that are too dry, which would makes both treats taste extra sharp, even metallic. Wines with too much tannin, like cabernet, can grate like a conversation-hogging dinner guest against some cheeses. And too much oak on a wine kills your palate's chances of detecting the nuances in good fromage. When confronted with such a spat, a warm baguette or piece of Serrano ham may be a grand mediator.