Today my parents, sister and I went for a wine tasting at Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, Minnesota. I went with my boyfriend last year when in Minnesota for my cousin’s wedding. (You can read about it here.) I had such a good time that I returned to Boston with two bottles of wine and an
eagerness for a second wine tasting. This year’s tasting was equally lovely and included two wines that were new since last year: a Reserve Chocolate Port and Gris d’Or. Both were fantastic. I ended up coming home with one bottle of the Chocolate Port, 2 of Gris d’or, and 2 of my favorite from last year, Rose Noir. Given the day’s field trip it seemed appropriate to focus today’s Fromage Friday post on pairing cheeses and wines.
It’s true that you can pair cheese with a variety of beverages including beer, hard cider, grape juice, and even coffee but wine is by far my favorite companion for cheese. There are no hard and fast rules in cheese pairing and ultimately it comes down to personal preference. But there are some helpful tips I have picked up along the way that make it easier.
When pairing wine with cheese a great analogy to think about is a vocal duet. Essentially just as with a duet you’d be aiming for two voices that sound good together you’re looking for to create cheese and wine pairings where the flavors harmonize together. This can mean flavors that align or contrast with one another.
Some key things to keep in mind:
- Decide which will lead – Ultimately both the cheese and the wine cannot drive the bus. Decide whether you’d like to start with a particular wine and find a cheese or cheeses to match or whether you’d like to find the wine that is best suited toward your cheese. Once you’ve decided your starting point it becomes easier to think about potential pairings.
- Strive for balance – You don’t want your wine to overwhelm your cheese or vice versa. Because of this some strongly flavored wines and cheeses are better enjoyed on their own.
- Too much complexity can be a bad thing – I avoid pairing complex cheeses and wines together. There are often too many flavors and aromas going on resulting in a wine that doesn’t flatter your cheese or vice versa. It’s often works better to pair a simple wine with a complex cheese and vice versa. Whether you choose to make the wine or the cheese the complex partner is all up to you based on which you want to take center stage. As a cheese obsessed girl you can probably guess which I would pick but you can absolutely make the wine the lead act as well.
- Go for similarity or contrast – When pairing wine and cheese it’s a bit like decorating your home. You can go for a colors that are beside each other or opposite on the color wheel. For cheese and wine that might mean pairing a spicy wine with a spicy cheese or a sweet wine with a salty cheese. Some other common pairings include contrasting or complimentary acidity and looking for similar floral or earthy flavors.
- Consider terroir – Another way of deciding what wine to pair with your cheese can be to consider region and geography. That might mean pairing a California wine with a California cheese or Tuscan wine with a Tuscan cheese. However, not all wines from a particular region will complement the cheeses of that region so it’s still valuable to keep balance in mind.
- Be careful of overgeneralizations – While generally a particular type of wine and cheese may work well together keep in mind that there can still be variation within type depending on terroir and other factors. Thus although Grüner Veltliner may in general pair well with a Mahón or Cheddar some Grüner Veltliners will pair better with some Mahóns or Cheddars than other. While there are no guarantees it helps to buy your cheese and wine from stores you can trust and who know their product well. Being able to sample the cheese and wines separately and together also doesn’t hurt in building your pairings.
- Take notes – Okay, this is where the dork in me comes out. Whenever I’m tasting cheese and wines together I like to take notes to remind myself of what worked and what didn’t. Since so much of pairing is ultimately all about trial and error it makes it easier to learn from my mistakes and remember. I also take notes of pairings I see recommended on menus and in cookbooks.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment – I believe that food can only be taken so seriously so you shouldn’t be afraid to have a little fun! Sometimes the most unlikely pairings can be surprisingly complimentary.
And when in doubt, The Cheese Plate recommends the following wines as especially cheese friendly: Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, Albanriños, Rieslings, and Sauvignon Blancs.
You’ll know when you’ve made a good pairing when the flavors work well together and bring out the best in the cheese and the wine. If you get a mismatched paring you’ll notice that the flavors clashed or bring out unattractive flavors or aromas in the cheese such as a metallic or excessively ripe taste.
The Tasting Experience:
So you’ve selected your cheese(s) and wine(s) and now it’s time for the fun part – tasting! First, you’ll want to try each pair of wine and cheese separately to get a sense of the flavors. Then I take a bite of cheese press it behind my front teeth and take a generous sip of wine. I let the flavors and scents mingle in my mouth to see if the flavors meld together or whether they seem to clash. From there I continue to move on to other pairings and take notes all the while (as mentioned above) of things I did and did not like and observations of flavors and scents. I use what I’ve learned to influence what I pick in the future.
What about you? Is there a wine and cheese pairing you especially love? How did you discover it?