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Entertaining with Cheese

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For tips on putting together a killer cheese board at home, check out chapter eight of Hip Tastes, “Wine at Home.”

The all-around best wines for cheese, hands down, are sweet wines. Extremely low in tannin, sweet wines don’t do battle with the goo, and their sweetness is the best possible foil to cheese’s characteristic saltiness. So, next time you’re pairing wine with cheese, reach for one of the following recommended pairings, or pretty much any sweet wine: ice wine, Sauternes, Auslese-level Riesling from Germany, or tawny port.

It’s in the Cheese.

Here’s an overview of the kinds of cheeses you can expect to find at a good artisanal cheese shop (something definitely worth seeking out if you plan to do much cheese tasting), although growing numbers of nicer grocery stores have begun carrying lots of these yummy items, too.

Creamy Cheese
Epitomized by the all-popular Brie, creamy cheeses take their name (and their runny texture) from their super high fat content. They’re among the most difficult to pair with wine—second only to super salty blue cheeses—due to their intensely mouth-coating texture. Besides Brie, well-known creamy cheeses include Camembert and Epoisses, super stinky numbers from France that are so creamy you sometimes need a spoon to spread them. Match these up with low- to medium-tannin reds such as Pinot Noir, Cru Beaujolais, and Dolcetto. They also work well with whites with sturdy acidity and a hint of creaminess; I like French Chablis (Chardonnay) as well as Chardonnay from cool Western Australia.

Goat Cheese
Often referred to by its French name, chèvre, goat cheese is a step up in firmness from creamy cheese. It’s usually quite aromatic and boasts a tangy acidity that’s unique to cheeses made from goat’s milk. The best known versions come from France’s Loire Valley, where the cheese’s tangy nature is perfectly at home with the region’s equally assertive Sauvignon Blancs (think Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé). Watch for the cheese in its characteristic “log” form, or in little rounds, both of which are widely available, and pair it up with Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire or New Zealand, crisp whites from northern Spain, or light reds from the Loire; the best are from the appellations of Chinon and Bourgueil.

Semisoft Cheese
If any category of cheese gets overlooked on a regular basis, it’s this middle group, sometimes referred to as semisoft and, at other times, semihard (I know, confusing!). Made up of mostly cow’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, semisoft cheeses have a nutty richness to them that’s fabulous with a number of wines, especially rich whites. My favorite of all semisoft cheeses is Tomme de Savoie from the foothills of the Alps in France, Switzerland’s Gruyère,and Spain’s Manchego are other delicious semisoft cheeses. Match them up with rich white wines like those from Alsace and medium-bodied reds with a hint of earthiness, like those from Rioja and France’s Rhône Valley.

Hard Cheese
At last, a cheese category in which red wines reign supreme! The most famous hard cheese is probably Italy’s illustrious Parmigiano-Reggiano, which achieves its firm structure thanks to a mandatory aging period of at least fourteen months. As mentioned earlier, the grainy texture that develops in hard cheeses over time is what makes them such good companions to the tannin in red wine. Other well-known hard cheeses include Cheddar and Italy’s Asiago. No matter where they’re from, hard cheeses work best when paired with most medium to full-bodied reds, as well as with a handful of sturdy white wines. Nothing-shy-about-me New World Chardonnay is a good bet if you must pair hard cheese with a white, and sweet wines are also, as always, good bets.

Cheese 411, Part II
When in Doubt, Go for a Regional Pairing

Regional pairings are just what they sound like—wines and cheeses that go together because they grow together. These are the no-brainer combos of the wine and cheese world—and they’re usually delicious. Try these:

Asiago and light Italian reds, including Dolcetto d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti
Why: This crowd-pleasing semihard cow’s milk cheese from Italy’s Veneto is perfect for light- to medium-bodied reds from the boot.

Manchego and Spanish reds, including Crianza Rioja and reds from Navarra
Why: Young versions of this semisoft sheep’s milk cheese work beautifully with fruity reds; match up aged Manchegos with fuller-bodied Spanish reds (e.g., those from Penedès, Ribera del Duero).

Chaource and Champagne
Why: Because this soft, acidic cheese that’s similar to Brie is perfectly at home with yeasty, acidic Champagne; a fabulous combo!

Blue Cheese
Some of the most famous wine and cheese pairings originate with blue cheese, but like so many things in life with “two sides,” so do some of the worst. Basically, anything that’s not sweet or rather high in acidity will taste vile with blue cheese, which is remarkably strong and incredibly salty (that’s a double blow to all but the most sturdy wines). As a rule, sweet wines work best here, especially fortified sweet wines, including port and Madeira. Roquefort is a classic match with Botrytis-affected (read: nobly rotten) Sauternes, while Stilton is heavenly with vintage or tawny port. These are actually two of the most famous wine and food pairings in the world! Also try fruity, somewhat older reds, including those from Rioja (watch for reserva bottlings).

By Courtney Cochran. Reproduced with the permission of Penguin Group (USA), from Hip Tastes, The Fresh Guide to Wine by Courtney Cochran, October 2007.

Related Story: Food & Wine Pairing Menus


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