Whenever you have people over, you find yourself buying wine, and since you want to be a good host, you’re buying cheese to put out as well, right? So, what kind of cheese should you buy? Or if you’ve already bought the cheese, what kind of wine should go with it?
The pairing question is probably the most common of them all but, by following a few simple rules, you’ll never have to ask again.
Let’s start with cheese: In terms of texture, all cheeses fall into one of three categories: hard, semi-soft and creamy. Within those categories, a cheese can span an entire spectrum of flavors and aromas, ranging from mild to funky, and from bland to salty. They can be sweet, savory, earthy and bold — just like wine — but not all wines go with all cheeses, although there are some pretty neutral bottles you can always have around.
Blue cheeses are funky and smelly, but in taste they can range from slightly sweet to tangy or salty. As a general rule, I stay away from blues when making a cheese plate to offer to guests, because some people have a big problem with it, and it doesn't pair well with a lot of wines.
The only wines that will complement blue cheese will be sweet ones such as Sauternes, port or late-harvest wines — in other words, dessert wines. That’s when a blue cheese will taste best, too, served at the end of a meal with dried fruit and nuts, accompanied by a sweet wine — the wine is the dessert. If you’ve never tasted a blue cheese such as Roquefort with Sauternes, you haven't lived. The two flavors combine in your mouth to create a third, addictive flavor, whiich you can’t quite explain — it's funky and succulent all at once.
If you’re a true blue cheese junky (as I am) and you feel that no cheese plate in your house will be complete without something from the blue family, then offer a wine with rich, intense fruit that's big enough to stand up to the pungency of a blue cheese, such as a big, bold zinfandel or a fruit-forward Napa cabernet. In the case of a milder Roqufort, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape might do the trick.
Champagne and sparkling:
Another good go-to rule is Champagne and hard cheeses, which always work well together, such as real Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano. And I mean the real stuff chipped from an 80-pound wheel, not the canned powdered stuff. Real Parmigiano Reggiano is oily and salty, and has a hint of pineapple when it’s really fresh. The crisp dry citrus, chalk and green apple skin notes that come from a nice brut can cut the saltiness of the cheese, creating a quenching, rich and clean taste.
On the other side of sparkling pairings, try to avoid serving bubbles with fresh chevre (soft goat cheese), because the combination is an effect similar to when you pour root beer over a scoop of ice cream.
Now that we’ve gotten sweet, dry, salty and funky out of the way, here are some basic rules:
Crisp white wines like Gavi di Gavi, Sancerre, pinot grigio, Chablis, dry riesling, dry chenin blanc, gruner veltliner or a crisp dry rosé will go with just about any cheese, soft or hard. They have high acid, and a mineral brightness that will combine seamlessly, rarely leaving any off-putting aftertaste.
Red wines that are neutral and safe for nearly all cheeses include pinot noir, Beaujolais, barbera, Chianti and dolcetto. They all have medium acid and a lighter to medium body, so they have the ability to combine well with most cheese without overpowering, or being overpowered.
Match the flavor intensity:
A common cheese to have on any cheese plate is Brie, because of its buttery, soft and creamy decadence. It easily combines with fruit and can be spread on a sliced baguette because it’s more of a texture, when it comes down to it. A California chardonnay, thanks to its buttery texture and hints of tropical fruit, golden apple and ripe pear, often make it a crowd-pleasing pairing.
By matching the intensity of butter to butter, you create a savory mouth feel. The more intense the flavor of the cheese, the more intense the flavor of the wine can be. So if you’re serving cheddar, feel free to offer Bordeaux, merlot or cabernet sauvignon, or any of your favorite wines from anywhere in the world.
Match the country:
If you’re really struggling with making a decision, matching the country is an easy go-to. French cheeses go with French wines. The same goes for Manchego and Spanish wines, or Taleggio and Italian wines, but don’t be afraid to mix it up.
Because, after all, the idea of serving wine and cheese when entertaining is mostly about the entertaining itself, and spending time with the people you want to see most.