Wine and Cheese Pairings: Light Fare With Swanky Style

wine and cheese pairingsCompared to my friends, I was an early bloomer when it came to wine appreciation.  Even at the age of 23, I’d be the one bringing a mid-priced bottle of Cabernet to party, and then placing it on a table next to flavored vodka and pre-mixed margaritas.  Occasionally, I could convince someone to join me in a nice toast, but for the most part, wine always seemed like it was more geared towards an older crowd.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that I could get more friends on board with my hobby if I made an event out of wine and cheese pairings.

What I had been doing wrong in the past was bringing any old bottle of wine into a party with no set menu.  It’s easy to plunk a bottle of Chablis down next to half a pepperoni pizza and a bowl of corn chips, but is anyone actually going to enjoy that combination?  There are hundreds of different wine varietals and vintages out there, and pairing them up with the right foods gives you and your friends a much better chance of getting a true sense of appreciation.  You will be hard pressed to find a better companion to wine than cheese.  Both are culinary delicacies, both are available in a variety of price ranges, and both can make up nearly the entire menu of your next gathering.  Don’t be intimidated!  Coming up with wine and cheese pairings is easy, fun, and more affordable than you think.

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Let’s get to some ideas:

Why Do Wine and Cheese Go Together So Well?

This is often one of the first questions people new to the wine and cheese pairing hobby will ask.  What is is about wine that makes it go so well with cheese, of all things?  There are actually a few answers to this.  First off, both are very flavorful and complex. Even though Roquefort and Parmesan are both technically “cheese”, you will know right away that these two have two very different tastes and “mouth feel” (simply put, how it feels in your mouth when chewed and tasted).  Likewise with wine – a full bodied Merlot, and a crisp Riesling are both “wine”, but not at all similar beverages.  Pairing one complex food with an equally complex drink can allow you to appreciate some of the more subtle flavor notes each one offers.

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Secondly, there is a bit of science behind this trick.  Cheeses are mainly composed of fat.  When you eat cheese, it coats the inside of your mouth with oils.  This is a good thing, in that most of the flavor experience happens thanks to those oils, but it may not be a sensation you want to hang on to.  Before too long, you will want something to drink.  Wine has a unique “astringent” property, meaning it breaks up oils.  This not only removes that strange “coated” feeling in the mouth, but is also allows your next taste of cheese to be more pure.  Since there is nothing coating your tongue and taste buds, your next bite will be a truer representation of the flavors in the cheese.  So in short, it is almost as though these two were always meant to be tasted together.

Okay, So What Are Some Pairings To Try?

wine and cheese pairings blue cheeseBlue Cheeses:  These aged cheeses are often pungent, salty and very flavorful.  They are made from either goat’s milk, sheep’s milk or cow’s milk, and have had molds introduced to the culture to produce those blueish veins you see running through the cheese.  Many cheeses of this type will have stronger flavors with age, but there are still some varieties which are a little more mellow.

Pair With:  Try dessert wines.  The bold, salty flavors of the blue cheeses will compliment nicely with a sweet wine.  One intense flavor matches another, so don’t be afraid to go for the gusto.  Try Port wines for their dark and decadent notes.  A full bodied and fruity zinfandel will also provide a lovely contrast.  If you are looking for something slightly less sweet, consider a Shiraz, but if you want to really wow your guests with a rare treat, go for an Ice Wine.

wine and cheese pairings goat cheeseFresh Goat Cheeses:  One of my personal favorite indulgences! If you are able to, try to acquire some from either a local farmer’s market, or an artisan cheese stand at your local grocery store.  Local goat cheese is a treat everyone should experience at some point.  If there is none available, never fear!  Packaged goat cheese is available at most grocery stores, and is still wonderfully good.  These cheeses are sometimes called “Chêvre”, and are made entirely from goat’s milk.  These are typically soft, spreadable cheeses, but they can sometimes have a firmer, crumbly texture.  They are often rolled in spices such as peppercorns, dill, garlic, sage, or even a dried fruit like cranberries.

Pair With: White wines such as Sauvignon Blanc will pair very well.  The light, citrus flavors found in this “wild white” (as the name translates) are a compliment to the smoothness of the goat cheese.  Another to try would be a Sancerre, a dry white.  Either will offer a bright flavor contrast.

wine and cheese pairings hard cheeseMonterey Jack:  A cheese made from wither fully or partially skimmed cow’s milk.  Monterey Jack got it’s name from Monterey California, where it was first produced. This is an easily sliced, somewhat sharp favorite for those guests who prefer less “exotic” cheeses.  The flavor of an aged Monterey Jack will be somewhat nutty.

Pair With:  The dry boldness of a good Cabernet Sauvignon will work as a nice pairing.  The subtle sharpness of the cheese allows for a fuller appreciation of the dark complexity of the Cabernet.  Many Cabernet wines offer notes of blackberries, tobacco, mint, currants and caramel.  The easy and familiar Monterey Jack will help bring these subtleties to the forefront.

wine and cheese pairings brieBrie: Always a party favorite, this soft and flavorful cheese is made from raw cow’s milk.  Your guests will probably ask you this, so be sure to tell them that yes, that rind is edible.  This is a lovely, buttery, French cheese which can be served either at room temperature, or after being heated in an oven.  Look for a brie at the height of its “ripeness” to enjoy it at peak flavor.

Pair With:  Time to pop those corks!  Brie is a wonderful compliment to Champagne and other sparkling white wines.  The distinction is that true Champagne is made only in the Champagne region of France, from whence the grapes get their name.  Other sparkling whites are lovely too, and can just as easily offer a crisp and refreshing contrast to the smooth and creamy cheese.

wine and cheese pairings parmaesanParmigiano-Rianeggo:  Most people have probably only experienced Parmigiano-Reggiano in it’s finely grated form.  Popular as a topping for salads and pasta, this hard, dry cheese can easily be sliced into thin wafers for your guests to enjoy.  It is a sharp and dry tasting cheese made from skimmed cow’s milk.  This is the Italian counterpart to Parmesan cheese.

Pair With:  Chianti or Malbec.  Did you ever wonder why Chianti seems to be a staple in Italian restaurants?  It is because it pairs so well with pasta, and the Parmesan cheese that goes on it.  This is a rich, red and fruity wine with lovely notes of cherry and subtly spicy pepper.  Now a Malbec on the other hand pairs well because of its notes of ripened black fruits, vanilla and spice.  Spice seems to be the key to pairing well with a Parmigiano-Reggiano, so either selection will do nicely.

wine and cheese pairings cheddarCheddar:  This familiar, orange colored cheese is popular as a compliment to everything from hamburgers to omelets.  Naturally, a cheese as commonplace as cheddar is likely to have a wide range of varieties.  Mild cheddars are likely to be the ones your guests are most familiar with, but there are also more aged and sharp varieties you can introduce them to.  Depending on which variety you choose, you have a selection of wines to try along with it.

Pair With:  For mild cheddars, try a dry red such as a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cheddar is a thick and hearty cheese, so the boldness and tang of a Cabernet helps to balance that out.  For a not-too-mild, but not-too-sharp cheddar, you can’t go wrong with a nice merlot.  This is a medium dry red and it pairs well with a medium sharp cheese.  For a very sharp cheddar, switch over to whites and go for a good, oaky Chardonnay.  A barrel-aged Chardonnay will help mellow out that sharp flavor.

wine and cheese pairings mozzarellaMozzarella:  Everyone’s favorite pizza cheese actually has more varieties than you may think.  There is everything from the incredibly soft, fresh mozzarella, right on down to individually packaged string cheese.  Mozzarella is a mild, somewhat salty but light cheese.  Most people enjoy it on it’s own merits, but that doesn’t mean you can’t spice it up with a fun pairing.

Pair With:  Try a bright and fruity Beaujolais.  My first introduction to this ripe and juicy wine was when I was visiting the south of France.  It did not take me long to realize that Beaujolais pairs wonderfully with cheeses, but perhaps none so well as mozzarella.  This easy and tasty pairing is sure to please those who are newcomers to wine pairings, as well as veterans.

How Do I Get Started?

Plan a party!  Come up with a budget you are comfortable with (you do not have to spend a lot to pull this off), and begin selecting your menu from there.  The great thing about wine and cheese pairing experiences is that it is not at all gauche to make this gathering a B.Y.O.B.  You can invite guests to bring along a favorite bottle if they have one, with no expectation that they must.  This can be a good way to increase the variety at your party without adding too much expense.

You can set up your wine and cheese pairings any way you like.  Some people prefer to begin with the most mild cheeses, and continue moving towards the bolder flavors at the end.  It can also be fun to mix it up though.  The point is that you are trying something new, and gaining a new appreciation for the culinary arts, while bringing your friends along with you.  Don’t stress, feel free to experiment, and above all have a good time.