Few things are more stylish than hosting a wine and cheese social, providing the host has a rudimentary knowledge of pairing wine with cheese. This is not as difficult as it sounds. You do not have to be a Chef d’ Cuisine to make informed choices for proper combinations of wines and cheeses. There really are no ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ pairings. There are just some that give better results than others. So, you don’t have to worry about creating a disaster. Most wine and cheese combinations will be acceptable to most people
If you really want to impress your guests, you will want to do a bit better than ‘acceptable’. Picture it this way: On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being horrible, and 10 bordering on the Spiritual, almost any wine and cheese combination will fall somewhere between 4 and 6, even by accident. To move closer to the 10 side, there are a few guidelines you will find helpful:
- White wines compliment soft cheeses, and stronger flavors and aromas.
- Red wines compliment hard chesses, milder flavors and bouquets.
- Sweeter, fruitier wines compliment a wider variety of cheeses.
- The saltier, and more piquant the cheese, the sweeter the wine should be.
- Harder cheeses can handle more tannic wines.
- Softer cheeses are better with more acidic wines.
One reason soft cheeses are better with white wines is that the soft cheeses leave a thin layer of fat coating the inside of your mouth, blocking your taste buds. This will make red wines tend to taste bland and monotonous. White wines are able to cut through this layer much better. Champagne and sparkling wines are especially good at busting through the fat layer, and the carbonation makes for some delightful sensations. If in doubt, go with sweeter, fruitier wines. They match up with the widest range of cheeses.
To develop skill at pairing wine with cheese, you need to understand a little about cheese, as well. Cheeses are made from the milk of one, or a combination of 3 animals: Cows, Goats and Sheep. There are hundreds of different cheeses from all over the world, but they can be grouped into 11 catagories:
- Cheddar-originating from a small Somerset village of the same name, this is made from cows milk, and has undergone a process called “cheddaring” which removes more whey and allows the acidity and proper texture to develop. It is pale yellow to orange in color, hard textured with an acidic bite, or sharpness. Although not ‘true’ cheddars, this category would also include American, Longhorn, Colby and Monterrey Jack cheeses. Cheddars can be young, aged, flavored, or smoked. They are rated by sharpness, from mild to extra sharp. They have an affinity for Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah wines.
- Blue-identified by bluish ‘veins’ running through them, these cheeses have a characteristic spicy, pungent flavor and aroma. The vein is actually a blue/green mold, or fungus, which gives the cheeses much of their character. Good examples are Blue Cheese, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, and Stilton. They are especially wonderful with Sauternes, Muscat and Port wines.
- Leaf-Wrapped-a process of preserving and flavoring cheese that predates the availability of paper. The leaves seal out the elements and insects, seal in the moisture, and contribute their characteristics to the cheese. They can be wrapped in leaves, herbs, or even tree bark to enhance the complexity of the flavor and aroma. They are rich, creamy and luxurious, with flavors ranging from nutty to musky. Examples: Pecorino Folgie di Noce, Valdeon, and Hoja Santa. Good wine choices would include Cote-du-Rhone, Sauternes, Sangiovese, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Soft-the most luxurious of cheeses, they are normally served young, within 2 or 3 months of production. Many are mold-ripened, giving them their creamy, smooth texture, velvety, buttery taste, and almost intoxicating perfume-like aroma that borders on the sensual. Examples: Brie, Camembert, and Fromage de Meaux. These cheeses are best mated with Champagnes (both red and white), Blanc de Blancs, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon.
- Hard-these deserve a place on any great cheese plate. They are aged for years, not months, to allow them to develop a wonderful crystalline texture and earthy, sweet, buttery flavors, often with a long-lasting, smooth, tangy finish. Examples: Piave, Sbrinz, Gouda, and Lancashire. To bring out the best in these cheese, serve with Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Champagne.
- Semi Soft-these feature bold assertive taste and aroma, with tangy, meaty notes, and a fruity finish. Examples: Manchester, Dorset, Fouchtra, and Tallegio. These work marvelously with Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, and Merlot.
- Washed Rind-bathed in salt water, wine, or spirits, these cheeses have a creamy interior, and powerful aroma and flavor. Examples: Limbuger, Raclette, Grayson, and Munster. These are legendary with Gewürztraminer, Muscats and Reislings.
- Semi Firm-often salted with brine during production, these have a luscious fragrance reminiscent of toasted hazelnuts, with a sweet, buttery taste, and overtones of herbal, earthy, or mushroom, and a smooth, musky finish. Examples: Flixer, Ibores, Adelegger, and Bra Tenero. These are best enhanced by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.
- Firm-these cheeses have a distinctive firm texture, and a bright, edgy, sometimes sharp flavor. The bouquet can range from herbal, to musky. Examples: Swiss, Double Gloucester, Gruyere, and Cantelet. These are best served with Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, or Pinot Noir.
- Mountain-these wonderful and unique cheeses are produced above 2500 feet elevation. There are more species of microorganisms living above 2000 feet than below it, which gives the cheeses their deep and complex flavors. They are typically smooth, nutty, earthy, and woody, with smooth herbal finishes. Examples: Gamonedo, Comte, Hoch Ybrig and Forsterkase. Good choices of wine for these are Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Muscat.
- Raw Milk-these are produced from milk that has not been heated above 100 degrees F, bypassing the pasteurization process. Pastuerization deprives milk, cheeses and honey of the ability to develop fully, by killing off the needed microorganisms. Raw Milk cheeses have a deeper, more mature flavor and aroma than any of the other cheeses. They are almost decadent when paired with Rieslings, Merlot, Sauternes, and Zinfandels.
These are only guidelines to get you started. Experience is the best teacher. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and be bold. With a little practice, you will soon become an expert at pairing wine with cheese.