The Ultimate Wine and Cheese Pairing Guide
‘Tis the season for celebrations, egg nog, and spending quality time with kith and kin, right? As a wine and cheese educator, ‘tis also the season for fielding lots of calls from friends and relatives looking for pairing recommendations. Whether for a company party or an evening soiree at home, wine and cheese plays a huge role in holiday celebrations, and everyone wants to get it right.
Building a wine and cheese extravaganza for your holiday celebrations doesn’t have to be a stress pain in the neck. Considering just a few basic principles, you can create a cheese platter that will have everyone fighting for the scraps. Add in a delish wine or two, and you’ve got yourself a party.
Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as you start strategizing:
Keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much. If you’re serving lots of other food, or cheese is the finale of the meal, keep it to 2-3 cheeses at most. If cheese is doing most of the caloric heavy lifting, 3-5 cheeses works nicely. Any more than that, and you run the risk of overloading your guests with options.
Mix it up! When picking cheeses, consider using different milk types. For example, a 3-cheese platter might include a goat milk, cow milk and sheep milk cheese. Also consider using different textures to keep it interesting. A soft, cow-milk Brie is a great contrast next to a firm, aged sheep-milk Pecorino.
Don’t be afraid to be bold. When it comes to cheese, people are often more adventurous than you might think. Cheeses that are more…aromatic...may seem like a bit of a put-off at first, but they can be some of the most flavorful and unctuous morsels you can imagine. Don’t be afraid to pick a cheese with a little bit o’ horsepower. Way more often than not you’ll be glad you did.
Consider serving condiments. Cheese and wine is a glorious combination. Condiments are a way to make the bridge between them all that more tasty. For white wines, honey and dried stone fruits like apricots work great. Red wines love to see berry jams. Serving a big, bold red wine? Consider a few squares of dark chocolate with a blue cheese.. If you’re serving bread or crackers, keep those as mildly-flavored as possible. Baguettes are my favorite. Mild crackers are pretty good, too.
To help take the edge off a little bit and give you some ideas for starters, here are three different pairing suggestions from my wine & cheese pairing book, Tasting Wine & Cheese - An Insider’s Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing. I went with three wines commonly enjoyed at this time of year - Prosecco, Pinot Noir, and Port. There’s a little bit about the wine (to impress your guests), and some pairing guidelines and suggestions (to further impress your guests).
As you assemble your holiday cheese lineup, remember - the most important thing of all is to eat and drink what you like! Ready? Let’s do this.
Made from the highly-productive Glera grape, Prosecco is fast becoming the worldwide favorite when sparkling wine is called for. Often called “sparkling joy”, this northern Italian wine is game for almost any party. Flavorful, lower in alcohol, and unpretentious, Prosecco is a great choice for pairing with a wide array of cheeses. Or foods. Or by itself!
Prosecco styles range from dry to sweet, with many being made more toward the dry end of the scale. It is crisp and refreshing, with a clean and focused zippiness and aromas of Meyer lemons and apples are common, along with grapefruit and pears. Prosecco has a milder and more approachable flavor and texture than the more austere Champange. Softer bubbles and sweeter flavors heighten its drinkability. Sometimes these wines can have a slight bitterness to them, which only increases their compatibility with cheeses.
The cheese that loves it
Prosecco can work with both soft and creamy cheeses, and aged and salty ones as well. The softer cheeses work great because the sharp bubbles cleanse the palate, setting you up for another bite. Try the sinfully creamy Pave d’Affinois (cow milk, France), a small, brownie-sized cheese that is gooey in the middle with just the right amount of salt. Aged cheeses work well because the more intense flavors and saltiness counter the wine’s softer notes. Try a piece of classic Parmigiano-Reggiano (cow milk, Italy). The noble fruit and salt tones of the cheese pair beautifully with the wine.
More than any other wine grape in the world, Pinot Noir is at once lauded for its magnificence and cursed for its difficulty. It is the top grape in Burgundy, France, where it makes some of the most expressive and perfumed red wines in the entire world, and it is grown all over the winemaking globe. Those who love Pinot Noir do so almost to a point of obsession.
Pinots from old-world producers really exhibit terroir - that “sense of place”. Old-world Pinots have aromas of red fruit like cherry and strawberry, as well as earthy tones and often mushroomy or meaty aromas as well. New-world wines show more fruit and often have a jam-like aroma to them. Both styles show softer tannins and a silky texture. When made well, and Pinot Noir has the potential to be one of the most enjoyable bottles you’ll ever have.
The cheese that loves it
New-world Pinot enjoys pairing with a simple, soft complexion. Try Jasper Hill’s bloomy-rinded Moses Sleeper (cow milk, Vermont), or a slightly-aged goat milk cheese such as Chevrot (goat milk, France). Old-world wines (especially those from Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir) pair well with cheeses that are a bit more aromatic. Try a middle-aged Camembert (cow milk, France) or the amazing washed-rind cheese Epoisses (cow milk, France), also made in Burgundy. There’s a saying that what grows together goes together, and it’s absolutely true here. Washing the cheese in marc (French grappa, basically) gives the cheese a distinctive orange rind and pungent odor. The interior is soft and luxurious. Serve this with a dollop of cherry jam to really make the wine’s fruit characteristics pop.
Made in the Douro region of Portugal, port is the most popular of all fortified wines. It was originally made as a table wine, but producers discovered that adding distilled spirits to the fermenting wine turned it into the sweet, smooth treat we enjoy today.
The secret to port is the addition of grape spirits during the wine’s fermentation. Essentially, fermentation is converting grape sugar into alcohol. When it’s done to completion, the resulting wine is alcoholic but not sweet (because all the sugars were converted to alcohol). When grape spirits are added during this process it halts the process immediately, and any remaining sugars stay sweet. For port, this means the wine has more alcohol and still have some sugar left, making the wine sweet. While white port is somewhat available, port from red grapes is far more popular, and comes it two styles. Ruby port is fortified red wine that’s kept away from oxygen, allowing the wine to keep it’s ruby red color and bright red fruit aromas and flavors. Tawny port is aged in barrels with constant exposure to oxygen. This contact turns the wine a tawny brown as it ages and imparts wonderfully nutty aromas and flavors of toffee, vanilla and raisins.
The cheese that loves it
Cheeses that are flavorful and medium to full-bodied work well with port. Ruby port pairs wonderfully with the classic Montgomery’s Clothbound Cheddar (cow milk, England). The cheese’s curdy texture and slightly sweet and farmy flavors blend seamlessly with the wine’s fruit and thickness. For tawny port, try a cheese with a similar nuttiness to it. Try an aged Gouda like Reypenaer VSOP (cow milk, the Netherlands). The sweet flavors of the cheese match the wine’s toffee character.
Adam Centamore is the author of Tasting Wine and Cheese: An Insider's Guide to Mastering the Principles of Pairing (Quarry Books, 2015).