Well, this weekend has been devoted to the art of pairing wines and cheeses. Obviously, now that I have to do this for paying customers, I have to be more careful about my pairings than if I were trying to do it for myself! I am readingThe All American Cheese and Wine Book by Laura Werlin, and it is proving very helpful. One of the things I realized when I started this job was that ALL of my wine and cheese education is French. This might sound like a great thing, and it is! If someone says to me they are drinking a Bordeaux, or a Médoc, or a Sauternes, I know what they are talking about, and can probably recommend some French cheeses. However, this is the U.S., and I have to learn the new vocabulary of Viogniers, Zinfandel, and all those Pinots, plus American, Spanish, and Italian cheese (basically, everything not French!). So today, I’m just going to tap out what I’ve picked up in an effort to clarify everything for myself, and share with you what I am learning.
The All American book gives 10 tips on pairing:
1. Pair textures of wines and cheeses. Apparently, not everyone pairs wine and cheese this way, but the book suggests (there are no rules, remember!) that you pair a cheese with a wine of similar texture. For instance, if you have a meaty cheese, like a mountain cheese or washed-rind one, then you may want a full-bodied/higher alcohol wine. If we have a creamy blue cheese, we might want want a creamy wine. OK, makes sense on paper! For instance, choose semi-soft jack (silky!) for the full-bodied Chenin Blanc.
2. Pair light cheeses with light wines. Light wines are those that have little or no oak aging or fermentation. Without the oak, they have a higher acidity, and are crisper (from the acidity). If there is a higher alcohol content, then the wine likely has a fuller body. The way to figure out if a wine is crisp is if it has descriptors like “citrus” or “apple.” “Toasty” or “vanilla” indicate oak and thus aging, meaning a fuller body.
3. Pair white wines with cheese. I never had a problem with this, but the book tells me many people don’t like pairing white wines with cheese. Anyway, white wines are more acid, and are more buttery and fruity, so they are more compatible with high-acid cheeses and soft-ripened cheeses. Here, I am going to have to check and see if the client’s white wine is very oaky, or else it won’t go very well with most cheeses (except for maybe the most mild). So the pavé d’affinois that is so popular in the store could go with a Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc, as long as they are not too aged. Last night I tried this kind of pairing with Midnight Moon, a semi-firm goat’s cheese from Cypress Grove (California) aged 12 months. It worked out very well with a 2006 Taz from Santa Barbera, CA. I also learned, though, that even if the description reads like it will match a certain cheese, you still need to actually try it to make sure! Sometimes, the descriptions aren’t that helpful.
4. Pair fruitier-style wines with cheese. The book says that there are a couple of iwnes that are well-balanced enough that we don’t have to worry about this too much–Riesling and Gewürztraminer (I love saying that word!). The Gewürztraminer is a new discovery for me, and apparently there are some good makers in the U.S., particularly in the cooler climates. In any case, so if the wine is fruity enough, even if it is a red wine, it could be compatible with a greater variety of cheeses. The book even suggest pairing the washed-rind cheeses with Gewürztraminer. I need to try that out, just with the right clients, since (too many!) people seem to have an aversion to them.
5. Pair sparkling wines with blue, creamy, and salty cheeses. Blue cheeses work well with sparkling wines because the wines provide a yeasty canvas on which the blues can sparkle (in their own way of course). Aged blue cheeses should go with an older sparkling wine, and younger blue cheeses can be paired with younger, fruitier sparkling wines. Sparkling wines work well with creamy cheeses (like double or triple crèmes) because of the way the bubbles can play off the lingering mouthfeel of the cheese after you’ve swallowed it. Salty cheeses work well with the sparkling wines because bubbles play with the salt in your mouth, diffusing the saltiness.
6. Red wines can be paired with nearly everything. It’s easier to pair fruitier red wines than drier ones because the fruitier ones are more noticeably acid. Otherwise, I am going to have to be careful because the tannins in red wine tend don’t go well with the salt and umami in chese. Again, older red wines should be paired with aged cheeses. For instance, older Zinfandels and Merlots would go well with cheddar, gruyère, or comté, as long as they are not too tannic. Hard cheeses can go well with reds, leaning toward older or fruity wines. Soft-ripened cheeses can be particularly difficult with this category of wines because the rind and the paste have distinct flavors–the paste will tend to be creamy, while the rind may be tough. The book suggests wines with fruity and earthy chracteristics. I am going to have to check through the store’s wine list to see what those could be!
7. Cheeses and wines with comparable flavors should be paired together. Makes sense! The book makes some suggestions, like medium-bodied merlot and emmentaler, because the nutty, sweet, mellow flavor of the emmentaler will complement the earthy, fruit rouge essence of the merlot.
8. Pair cheeses and wines that have “opposite” flavors. This includes pairing very salty cheeses like Asiago and sweet wines, like Muscat. I can pair fruity wines with salty cheeses, and hopefully all will go well. As long as I keep the saltiness and sweetness in balance, it’s all good!
9. Dessert wines and cheese go together. I personally love Muscat, so that would be my dessert wine of choice, except for trying out the Gewürztraminer. But in any case, to tell if a wine is sweet, look for the words “late harvest” and “fortified” on the wine label. They tend to be described with words like “chocolate,” “coffee,” “honey,” and “orange.” So we can pair our famed pavé d’affinois or fontina with a muscat, and aged gouda or parmesan 9both salty), with sherry, which seems to be one of the favorite drinks of this book’s author (to pair, that’s all!).
10. Pair aged, mild cheeses with older, milder wines. This all goes back to the idea of pairing comparable flavors. the idea is that, as with aged people, aged wines and cheeses will mellow out. The wines and cheeses can both take on caramel flavors, or lingering (I like to stay mature and stately) earthiness. Pairing two old wines and cheeses is like finding an old friend. They’ve been through a lot, they should be together in their old age. Neither will overpower the other, they will just be and stand on their own, complementing the other. In that case, I should pair that famous Hook’s 12 year cheddar with some older Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Mmmm . . . .
Of course, this is all on paper and floating around in my head like so many fireflies. I really won’t get all of this until I have the chance to actually taste some of my pairings! This goes for the chutney/confiture pairings I am supposed to create for the cheese plates. These are also not fixed rules, since every wine and cheese is different. I’m just going to have to do some experimentation (yessss!).
There’s also a section in this book about perfect pairs based on the different types of cheeses, which I am trying to work out, and a very helpful chart with different types of cheeses and the wines that can be paired with them. I am trying to memorize at least the most popular wines, like Chardonay, all the pinots, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, etc., but there are so many combinations! I am just going to have to keep trying, and learn from my mistakes and successes. I have been able to make a couple pairings, and one made my client very happy, and one client was not so happy. [Note to self: not everyone like washed-rind cheeses.] I’ll get it eventually, I just need to keep reminding myself that!
So without further ado, I am going to keep on reading in an effort to absorb this book by tomorrow.
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