Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wine and Cheese Pairing - Two Great Tastes that Taste Better Together

Wine and cheese can pair up to make some of the most intriguing and satisfying food pairing combinations in the whole wide world. The problem is there are so many different types of wine, and so many different types of cheese it can be daunting to figure out a good match up.  The availability of  a good cheese shop used to be restricted to the culinary capitals of the world.  However, now with small artisan cheese shops on the rise throughout the countyr, and stores like Whole Foods bringing a vast array of cheeses to your neighborhood it is now easier than ever to find the right cheese to go with the wine you are serving.   Sometimes I select the cheese first, but mostly I decide the wine I want to serve, and find a cheese with characteristics that will complement the wine.

Some Considerations for Pairing Wine and Cheese

In my local whole foods, the wine and cheese are located right next to each other in the store. Looking over at least a hundred different cheeses, and several hundred different wines, picking a combination can become an overwhelming effort... but it doesn't need to be. Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind and you'll do just fine!  Remember, these are just guidelines - you may find some wonderful pairings that rebel against any of these "rules" and that's OK!

Salty Needs sweet. If you have a saltier cheese, look for a sweeter wine. The wine can be either a dessert wine like pairing a Sauternes with a salty blue cheese like Roquefort, or can be a dry wine with big fruit which provides the perception of sweetness from the flavor. 

Pair Acid with Acid.  The more acidic your cheese is, the more acidic your wine should be. Always in food pairing it is good to fight acid with more acid (like fire with fire!).

Feel that Texture.  A velvety soft cheese like a triple creme will typically blend nicely with a lighter bodied wine, or even a sparkling wine. A harder, more granular aged cheese will need a fuller bodied wine (either white or red).  Pairing success can also be found in contrasting textures, so an aged harder cheddar cheese can contest nicely with the light fruitiness of a Pinot Noir.

Other Flavors?  Cheeses may come with additional flavorings - smoke, herbs, caramelized onion (my absolute favorite), fruit, or spices.  Factor these flavors in when selecting your wine. Syrah can often have smoked meat characteristics to go with a smokier cheese, and I have always liked how a fruity Riesling, perhaps one from Washington State can accentuate a good smokey character in a cheese.  Avoid those cheese where liquid smoke is added and stick to the cheeses that are actually smoked.

When in Doubt - Go Regional.  Serving French wine...go with French cheese. Spanish wine and Spanish cheese are a great match. See the pattern here??? There is a reason that regional wine and cheese go great together - they were made to go together!  Especially in countries like France and Spain that have been making both wine and cheese for a really really long time.  OK, maybe not the most imaginative pairing approach in the world, but if it tastes great why not?

Don't Forget the Accessories. Adding some dried fruits and nuts to your cheese plates will give an added dimension of flavor possibilities by introducing extra sweet and salty taste components.

Did you Succeed? How do you know if you ended up with a good pairing, or a great pairing for that matter.  To test you should try the cheese and wine separately, with a cracker or small piece of bread in between to clear out your palate.  Do you like both on their own? If you dislike either, it is unlikely you will enjoy the pairing - but fear not, a great pairing can make a wine or food taste even better!  Now try the wine and cheese together. What do you think? Pleasant? Was the taste of either the wine or cheese heightened by the pairing? If so, you have (at least) a good pairing. To me, the great pairing is the finish - what flavors, if any lingers for a while after you have tasted the wine and cheese? It may be a flavor that was accentuated in the cheese by the wine or vice versa. If your pairing left a pleasant long finish - congrats and welcome to the world of great pairing!
Here are some combination suggestions that should work well for you- of course the final judgment is yours, but these are worth a try. Don't be afraid to experiment and find your own favorites!

Great White Wine and Cheese Combos

Sparkling Wine. Stick to lighter, fruitier styles, no need for expensive vintage Champagne for this pairing.
  • Brillat-Savarin (one of my favorites - also try Mt. Tam from Cow Girl Creamery).
  • Fresh Mozzarella
Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling (light bodied).
  • Fresh Goat Cheese
  • Camembert
  • Chèvre
  • Smoked Mozzarella (a fruity Riesling for this cheese).

Viognier. (Try it - I think you'll like it!)
  • Aged Gruyère
  • Pecorino
  • Manchego (Rioja is always a great option with Manchego!) 
  • Asiago (Ozzy Osborne?... No... ASIAGO!)
  • Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Brie
  • Havarti
  • Edam
White Dessert Wines.  Especially Sauternes or a similar botrytis based wine. 
  • Blue Cheeses (stick to the lighter flavored blues for a sweet white wine pairing)

Great Red Wine and Cheese Combos

Pinot Noir.
  • Brie
  • Aged Cheddar (for a pairing of contrasting textures - big cheese and lighter wine)
  • Brillat-Savarin (one of my favorites - also try Mt. Tam from Cow Girl Creamery) - the acidity of Pinot Noir can stand up to the acidity to this type of cheese.
  • Smoked Gouda
  • Cheddar
  • Petit Basque
Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Pecorino
  • Asiago 
  • Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Aged Manchego
  • Blue Cheeses. Many disagree with me on this pairing, but a big fruity Cab from Napa and a great blue cheese is one of my very favorite pairings!)
Zinfandel.  (A fruity, not too tannic Zin is a great, versatile wine to pick to pair with cheese)
  • Aged Gouda
  • aged Gruyère
  • Pecorino
  • Asiago
  • Parmigiano Reggiano
Red Dessert Wines. Ruby or Tawny Port, Late Harvest Zinfandel or Petite Syrah... you get the idea!
  • Blue Cheese
  • Aged Cheddar
  • Parmigiano Reggiano

Any Reason for a Party is a Good Reason!

Great way to show off your wine and cheese pairing skills - have a wine and cheese pairing party.  You can even challenge your guests to bring a wine and cheese pairing of their selection for a really kicked up pot luck!

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