READ – Stilton and Port (DP1)

Possibly The Greatest Pairing: Stilton & Port

Welcome to our tasting notes for pairing port with Stilton cheese. This is a favourite of cheese lovers throughout the world.

Below are tasting notes for the cheese, the spirit and comments on how they pair together. At the bottom of this section, there are more detailed notes for you to explore the cheese and wine more completely.

The Stilton

Your cheese is ripe Stilton aged around 3 months.

BodyCreamy, smooth, dense, slightly crumbly. Firm yet velvety mouthfeel, with blue veining adding contrasting granularity.
Primary TastesNoted savoury/umami, some saltiness, subtle sweetness
Herbal bitterness is important
Dairy FlavorsCream and butter
Making FlavorsPiquancy, mushroom and earthy quality
Ripe pear or dried fruit
Aging FlavorsStilton is not typically aged beyond ripening
– intensified savoury, umami, and earthy notes
– tang from the excessive blue
– butterscotch or caramel
– gritty calcium salts in the blue veins

The Port

Your wine is a port.

BodyFull-bodied. Thick and velvety, dominated by sweetness, but slightly astringent tannins and 20% to 22% alcohol though well-integrated and not dominant.
Grape FlavorsDark fruit flavors, blackberry, black cherry, and plum prominent.
Aging FlavorsDried Fruits: raisins, dates, and figs
Spice: such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves
Nuts and caramel
Earthy, tobacco, and leathery notes

The weight and intensity of the wine is key to its positive impact and character.

Why Should It Work?

Remember – everyone is different so you will have your own opinions.

However, this is one of the most reliable cheese and wine pairings.

StrengthBoth have robust and intense big-bodied flavor profiles. In addition, the alcohol cuts through the creamy curd.
BalanceThe wine is sweet and the cheese salty savoury, providing the core balance and matching in the pairing.
HarmonySlight: nuttiness of the cheese very lightly bridges to the nuttiness that comes from aging the port.
Some unexpected flavors: chocolate, fondant, black forest gateau.
TextureThe viscous port melds nicely with the cheese softening in the mouth.
ProvenancePort and Stilton have been pairing together in the UK through accidents of war and trade since the 18th century. One of the most iconic cheese and wine pairings.

More About Stilton

In 1724, Daniel Defoe wrote in his “Tour Through The Villages of England & Wales” of Stilton being “famous for cheese,” calling it the “English Parmesan.” What this means is not at all clear, and could refer simply to it being England’s signature cheese without referring to its flavor, but it created a sensation. John Lawrence, in 1726, describes “recently famous Stilton” as “about 7 inches in diameter, 8 inches in height and 18 lbs in weight.” This is a similar shape, but about half the weight of a modern stilton. Stilton is going viral.

Blue Stilton does not become a thing until it is taken up by a publican Cooper Thornhill of the Bell Inn, Stilton. The town is in Cambridgeshire on the Great North Road from London to Edinburgh. Stilton is not and was not made in Stilton. Stilton and The Bell Inn is what made the cheese famous, but the making of it is the story of three women.

Lady Beaumont of Elton Hall made Stilton cheese for her own family’s use in the 1600s, and tales abound of her secret recipe. It was a Mrs. Orton, wife of a farmer from Little Dalby, who claimed to have made the first commercial Stilton cheeses in Leicestershire in 1730. The third lady, Frances Pawlett, a cheese-maker hailing from Wymondham in Leicestershire, strikes a deal with Thornwill to make the cheese and Pawlett’s develops a unique recipe for Stilton. Her recipe coalesces the blue cheeses made in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire into Stilton.

During the 19th century, Stilton production expanded significantly. Railways improved transportation, making it easier to distribute the cheese throughout England and beyond. The cheese became a favourite among the British upper class and gained recognition through awards and accolades at various exhibitions.

In 1996, Stilton cheese was granted PDO status by the European Union, recognizing its unique heritage and production methods. This legal protection ensures that only cheese produced in specific regions of England (Leicestershire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire), and adhering to traditional methods, can bear the name “Stilton.” Crucially, Stilton must be pasteurised to carry the name. This is as contentious as pasteurisation is a 20th century innovation. Some continue to believe true Stilton should not be pasteurised and it is a wrong that raw milk cheeses cannot bear that name. However, as we have seen, Stilton has always changed to make better cheese.

Stilton & America (19th-20th Century)

Stilton cheese started making its way to America in the 19th century, thanks to the growing British influence in the United States. American epicures, inspired by European culinary traditions, began to develop a taste for Stilton and other British cheeses. Importers began to ship Stilton across the Atlantic, introducing it to American cheese connoisseurs.

In the early 20th century, Stilton cheese gained further recognition in America as it was featured in prestigious restaurants and cheese shops. It became a then-symbol of sophistication and a must-have on fine dining menus.

Size & Shape

  1. Cylindrical Shape 7 to 8 inches diameter (18 to 20 cm); height approximately 8 to 9 inches (20 to 23 cm)
  2. Weight: 15 to 20 pounds (7 to 9 kg)

Smaller Stilton may be produced for Christmas, and it is traditional to sell it in ornate jars. For jarred Stilton, beware of the cheese being pressed into the jar, as this can ruin the texture.

Tasting Stilton

  • Body & Texture: ripe Stilton has creamy texture, smooth, dense, and slightly crumbly. When chewed, it has a velvety mouthfeel with the blue veining adding a subtle contrasting granularity.
  • Tastes: rich savoury and umami, supporting but not pronounced saltiness, with subtle sweetness in creamier Stiltons. There can be acidity, but the bitterness is important. It has a gentle, but clear herbal bitterness that gives body to the cheese.
  • Dairy Flavors: creamy and buttery, with some raw milk character
  • Maker Additions:
    • Blue Veining: significant piquancy, mushroom and earthy quality
    • Earthy Notes: earthy flavors sometimes damp cellar
    • Fruitiness: in good Stiltons there may be hints of ripe pear or dried fruit
  • Aging: Stilton may be considered aged when it is fully ripe (around 3 months) and aged further up to 6 months. This is uncommon and may not improve the cheese.
    • Intensity: intensified savoury, umami, and earthy notes
    • Sharpness: acidity and tang from the excessive blue
    • Cooked milk: potential for butterscotch or caramel
    • Crunch: calcium salts can crystalize in the blue veins giving a gritty texture which has no flavor

Stilton cheese can be poorly made, with excessive bitterness, dryness, mostly dairy notes, but otherwise lacking in complexity. At its best, it can be the best cheese in the world.

More About Port

Port dates to the late 17th century in the Douro Valley, northern Portugal. The Douro Valley’s diverse terroir and a rich variety of grape types, including Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, and Tinta Roriz, provided the raw materials for the creation of exceptional wines.

What makes port different from a typical wine is the adding brandy part way through fermentation. This makes it a “fortified” wine. Adding the high alcohol spirit kills the yeast and prevents the last sugars being consumed, delivering the twin characteristics of port – higher sweetness and high alcohol.

The wine first captured the attention of British wine enthusiasts in the late 1600’s and they embraced it. In 1703, the Treaty of Methuen, also known as the Port Wine Treaty, was signed between Portugal and England. This treaty significantly reduced the tariffs on Portuguese wines entering England, leading to a boom in Portuguese wine. This was exacerbated due to the periodic conflicts between England and France, including the Napoleonic Wars. During these conflicts, trade with France was disrupted, leading to an increased demand for Portuguese wines, particularly port.

To meet this trade, British wine merchants, such as John Croft and John Graham, established themselves in the Douro Valley, contributing to the production and exportation of port wine.

In 1756, the Marquis of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo issued a royal charter known as the “Alvará De 10 De Setembro,” which established the Douro Valley as the world’s first officially demarcated and regulated wine region.

British merchants introduced innovations, including the classification of port wines into the production process. In the 20th century, the categorization of Vintage, LBV (Late Bottled Vintage), and Tawny Ports emerged. Winemakers began experimenting with different styles of port, including white port and rosé port, to cater to evolving tastes. Port wine also saw the emergence of Single Quinta (Vineyard) Vintage Ports.

The USA: An Emerging Market For Port Wine

Early American colonists had a taste for fortified wines, including port, madeira and sherry. In recent decades, the United States has witnessed a resurgence of interest in port wine. It has become a favored after-dinner drink, appreciated for its rich, sweet, and complex flavors. Mixologists have also embraced port wine as an ingredient in cocktails, given its moderate alcohol, strong fruit flavors, viscosity and most importantly its natural sweetness.

How It Is Made

  1. Grape Varieties: The most common grape varieties include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), and Tinta Barroca. Grapes are harvested by hand and crushed to extract the juice (“must”).
  2. Fermentation: The must is fermentated in stainless steel or stone tanks. Fermentation is intentionally halted by the addition of grape spirits (fortification) before all the sugars are converted into alcohol, leaving a certain level of residual sweetness.
  3. Fortification: Grape spirits (brandy) with typically 77% to 80% alcohol by volume are added to the fermenting wine. The timing of fortification can vary, resulting in different styles of port wine, including Ruby, Tawny, and Vintage ports.
  4. Aging: Port wine is aged in wooden barrels or casks. The type and size of the barrels used can vary, and the aging process plays a crucial role in developing the wine’s flavor profile.
    • Ruby Port: Aged in large oak barrels to preserve its fruity and robust character.
    • Tawny Port: Aged in smaller oak barrels, exposing the wine to oxygen, which imparts nutty and caramelized flavors and a lighter color.
    • LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) Port: Aged in wood for an extended period, usually four to six years, and then bottled without extensive aging in the bottle.
    • Vintage Port: Considered the finest, these wines are bottled relatively early, typically after two years of aging in wood, and continue to mature in the bottle for decades.
  5. Blending (Optional): Some ports, such as Vintage and Tawny ports, may be blended to give a specific flavor profile and consistency. Master blenders carefully select and combine different barrels or vats of wine to create the final blend
  6. Bottling: Port is usually filtered and clarified before being bottled. Vintage ports, however, may be bottled without filtration to allow for further bottle aging.

Different Types Of Port

Ruby Port: Vibrancy & Youthfulness

Ruby port, often described as the “youngest” port, is a vibrant red color with fruit-forward flavors. After fortification, ruby ports are aged in large oak vats for a short period, usually around 2 to 3 years. This limited aging preserves the wine’s bright fruit flavors and deep red color.

Tawny Port: Nutty Complexity & Elegance

Tawny port is elegant, complex, with intriguing nutty notes. They are aged in smaller oak barrels or casks, exposing the wine to oxygen over an extended period. This oxidative aging changes the colour of the wine to tawny or amber, makes it smoother and brings notes of nuts, dried fruits, toffee and caramel.

Tawny ports are often blended from different vintages and casks, creating a consistent house style. The age designation on the bottle (e.g., 10-year, 20-year, or 40-year) indicates the average age of the blended wines.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port: The Best of Both Worlds

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) Port offers a compromise between the vibrant fruitiness of a ruby port and the complexity of a vintage port. LBV ports are aged longer in wood barrels, typically 4 to 6 years, before bottling. This extended aging allows them to develop more complexity and character compared to ruby ports.

LBV ports are characterized by their rich, fruity flavors, often with notes of dark berries, plums, and a touch of spice. They are approachable, well-structured, and a great choice for both immediate consumption and cellaring.

Vintage Port: The Epitome of Aging Potential

Vintage port is often considered the crown jewel of the port world, representing the pinnacle of quality and aging potential. Crafting a vintage port involves meticulous attention throughout the make process.

  • Careful harvesting and grape selection
  • Foot rather than mechanical pressing
  • Short barrel aging to keep the fruit flavors
  • Bottling young (within 2 years)
  • Aging in bottle, sometimes for decades. This can lead to gentle tannins, intense fruit, floral, and spice notes.

Vintage ports generally require decanting to remove the sediment before drinking.

Tasting Notes For Vintage Port Wine

  1. Body: Vintage port is full-bodied with a robust structure. Thick and velvety, the wine’s weight on the palate is substantial, offering a rich and luxurious mouthfeel. Its acidity is dominated by sweetness, but firm and grippy and slightly astringent tannins also play a significant role in Vintage port, contributing to its structure and aging potential. The tannins mellow with age. Vintage port has a high alcohol content typically ranges from 20% to 22% alcohol by volume. Despite the high alcohol content, it is well-integrated and not overly dominant.
  2. Grape Flavors: Dark fruit flavors, blackberry, black cherry, and plum are prominent. Intense and concentrated, these flavors show the ripeness of grapes used in production.
  3. Aging: It is in the aging that the full complexity of vintage port unfolds:
    • Dried Fruits: raisins, dates, and figs
    • Spices: spice such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves
    • Nuts & Caramel: As the wine oxidizes gently, nutty and caramelized nuances may appear, contributing to its overall richness and depth.
    • Tobacco & Leather: earthy, tobacco, and leathery notes

Vintage port is a sumptuous and powerful wine with a rich array of flavors and a well-balanced profile. While it is not subjected to modern flavoring techniques, its extended bottle aging leads to a fascinating evolution of flavors that make it a true treasure for wine enthusiasts.

So Old. One Of The Defining Cheese And Wine Matches.

Comparable Strengths: Both vintage port and blue Stilton have robust and intense big-bodied flavor profiles. The powerful, sweet, and fruity notes of vintage port complement the rich savory and salty character of blue Stilton cheese, and the alcohol breaks through the fatty curd.

Balance of Tastes: The wine is sweet and the cheese salty savoury, giving a nice balance. The unusual aspect is the bitterness. For bitter Stiltons, the ports dampens it, as is expected and welcomed. However, with finely balanced Stiltons, its bitterness can be strengthened in a herbaceous or leafy way, increasing the complexity of the marriage.

Harmony of Flavors: There some harmony in the nuttiness of the cheese and the nuttiness that comes from aging the port, but this is slight. The matching is primarily in the body and tastes.

Textural Combination: The vicous port melds nicely with the cheese softening in the mouth.

Provenance: Port and Stilton arise at the same time, the late 17th and early 18th century. While port is Portuguese, many of the port houses arise from British merchants and port and Stilton rose in popularity in a parallel way. This has led to this classic combination being cherished for generations, reflecting the British appreciation for both fine yet accessible cheese and wine.