The wine trade has its own bit of folklore on this subject. 'Buy on bread, sell on cheese', wine merchants of old were taught. Bread or dry biscuits are all you'll ever find to munch at a trade tasting, but the theory is that cheese smooths out a wine's rough edges enough to con unwary members of the public into buying caseloads of plonk.
According to Tim Hanni of Beringer Vineyards in California, a guru on the pairing of food with wine, all cheeses do have the potential to make tough red wines taste softer. The protein in the cheese reacts with the tough tannin in the wine; cream also reduces our perception of tannin. Blue cheeses, he says, can be even better, as they contain enzymes that can 'very drastically lower our perceptions of tannin'. (He suggests dissolving a dollop of Cambozola in your sauce if serving a roughish red wine.)
But there's clearly a lot more to cheese in its myriad forms than protein, cream and enzymes. Cheese flavours, and their mass of chemical constituents, must vary almost as much as those of wines, and the alchemy doesn't work with all cheeses. Very different wines match and clash with common British cheeses such as Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire and Caerphilly. And even ostensibly similar cheeses such as Camembert and Brie go with quite different wines - and different ones again as the cheeses become riper.
Many wine/cheese combinations are frankly foul (I defy you to eat Danish blue with any wine, enzymes or no). Many wines make some cheese taste flat or dull and many cheeses have a dulling, flattening effect on certain wines (Lancashire often seems to manage this).
There are a few scrumptious combinations, however. Just occasionally wine and cheese flavours really harmonise, or else contrast and offset each other, like roast pork and apple sauce or chocolate and orange. The French justifiably swoon over the match of Sauternes and Roquefort, but Sancerre, Pouilly Fume or other Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Loire with goat's cheese make an unexpected - but totally brilliant - combination. And if you want to be really esoteric, the brown, sweetly fudgy Scandinavian cheese Gjetost goes wonderfully with Bual Madeira. Maybe it is because both are sweet, both are cooked as part of their manufacturing process and both have a tangy side to their flavours.
In my view, those are the real stars, but there are lots of good-to-acceptable combinations if you pick and choose your cheeses and wines. Surprisingly, it's not necessarily the delicately flavoured cheeses that are easiest to match. It is hard, for example, to find good partners for Cheshire, Lancashire and Port Salut, while some strongly flavoured cheeses - goat's cheese, Parmesan, Roquefort - go with lots of wines.
Some styles of wine match a good range of cheeses. In my experiments, white wines went better with more cheeses than reds, and sweet or sweetish whites better than dry ones. Sauternes is a real star. (You don't like sweet wine, and certainly not with cheese? Well, port is sweet and we have traditionally drunk that with cheese.) The sweetness offsets the cheese's saltiness - it works even with medium-dry wines, such as English whites or slightly sweet German wines from QbAs to Kabinetts. Claret matches very little, though it is nice with Roquefort, goat's cheese and Gouda.
But to my taste, apart from the very few excellent pairings, most wines - and most cheeses - lose out at least a little by being served together. So don't save your best wines for the cheese course. If you must do so, make sure you pick your cheeses to match them.