Perfectly paired: European wines and cheeses
Ah, that delicious duo, wine and cheese — both take time to produce with a fermentation and aging process, and they pair perfectly. They’ve also been around for like, forever; evidence of their existence has been found as far back as 7000-6000 BC in Asia and Europe. All I can say is thank goodness someone let the milk and grape juice “spoil” and accidentally discovered these delicious alternatives.
No self-respecting party planner would fail to provide a copious supply of both at their next holiday soirée, especially not one thrown here, smack-dab in the middle of cheese- and wine-making heaven. With such variety found at any local hypermarket, creating the perfect platter and accompanying wine list is as easy as a quick trip to the store and an hour or less of prep. However, the sheer number of variety can make one’s head spin. So here are a few simple suggestions to help you select, serve and start noshing.
CHOOSE THREE TO FIVE
If your cheese platter is going to be the centerpiece of your hors d’oeuvres table, then let it be a conversation starter by creating an exciting mixture of three to five distinctively different varieties, such as something hard, soft-ripened, fresh, washed-rind (stinky) and blue. A good rule is to allow for about 1.5 to 2 ounces or 45-55 grams of cheese per person. If you don’t plan to serve much more other than a couple of appetizers, plan for a little bit more or provide plenty of complementary savory or sweet sides, which is covered further down.
When pairing wines, remember:
- White wines match better with cheeses than red wines.
- Semi-dry or sweet wines pair better with cheeses than dry wines.
- Match the weight of the cheese with the weight of the wine.
- The softer a cheese, the more it will coat the mouth and block taste receptors. Wines with high acidity or effervescence will bind to creamy textures or high fats to help clear the palate.
- Strong, pungent, sharp cheeses require full-bodied wines to complement.
- The more tannic the wine, the harder and aged a cheese should be.
See varieties below, and their wine pairing suggestions:
Fresh – No rind nor aged (or for a short time), these cheeses can be firm, soft, creamy, crumbly, tangy and light, and infused with savory or sweet flavors or rolled in herbs, fruits and spices. Choose from Chèvre, Caprini, Feta, Ricotta or Mozzarella. Pair with: Young, delicate cheeses work with bubbly wines, like Champagne, Sekt, Prosecco or Asti, and crisp young whites like Riesling, Portuguese Vinho Verde and Sauvignon Blanc.
Soft-ripened – Bloomy, white rinds and rich, these are creamy, buttery and can be tangy, salty, sweet, milky and more. Many are infused with both sweet and savory flavors. Try Fromage de Meaux (Brie), Camembert or Brillat-Savarin. Pair with: Oak-aged Riesling, buttery Chardonnay, or bubbly Champagne; fruity reds like Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir), Barbera or Beaujolais are also a good fit.
Surface-ripened – These wrinkly, thin-rind, soft-centered varieties are some of my favorites, varying in flavor from floral, lemony to earthy and textures from crumbly, firm to runny. Choose Robiola, Bûcheron, Le Chevrot and Crottin de Chavignol, aged goat cheeses from the Loire Valley. For pairing, “where it grows, it goes” is a good motto here; try Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre of the Loire Valley, or crisp, young whites like Riesling, Portuguese Vinho Verde and Sauvignon Blanc.
Semi-soft – Pliable and flavored of fresh milk, these range from mild to pungent and fruity to bitter. Go for Beer Käse or Edam. Pair with: Fruity, acidic whites or fruity reds like Dornfelder, Spätburgunder, Pinot Noir.
Semi-hard, medium aged to hard, aged – Ranging in ages from two weeks to a few years, these varieties vary from nutty, fruity, salty, sharp or sweet, some with a delightful granular crystallization and exceptional melting capacity. Go with Comté, Gouda or aged Gouda, Parmigiano Reggiano, Oussau-Iraty, Havarti, Emmental, Pecorino, Manchego, or the beautiful Irish Porter, an aged cheddar marbled with porter beer. Pair with: Medium to full-bodied whites like Chardonnay, Riesling; bold reds, such as Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rioja, Merlot, as well as ports and sherries.
Stinky (washed-rind) – Beneficial bacteria and salt baths give these cheeses smelly, orange-tinted rinds and tangy, creamy, rich interiors and flavors. Favorites include Langres, Taleggio, Époisses (the king of stink, it’s actually banned from the French metro), Morbier and Trou du Cru. Pair with: Fruity whites that don’t compete, such as young Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sauternes; fruity reds including red Burgundy, Pinot Noir.
Blue – These penicillium-injected, blue-veined and mottled varieties range from mild to intense, with a texture from creamy, crumbly to hard. Go with light Bavaria Blu, triple-creamy Cambozola, to strong and bold Stilton, Gorgonzola or Roquefort. Pair with: Sweet wines like Gewürztraminer, Auslese Riesling and Chenin Blanc; also consider port, sherry or Eis wine to complement. Avoid dry red wines.
SERVING AND PLATING
- Be creative for the platter. Use a vintage German round bread board, found at most flea markets or on-base bazaars. Another great find at the bazaar (or local vineyard) is the round oak lid to a wine barrel. A nice-sized piece of marble makes a beautiful serving piece, as do olivewood cutting boards found during Christmas markets and seasonal arts and crafts fairs. Or, a simple butcher block cutting board makes a simple, tasteful display, as do silver-plate or porcelain china platters.
- Allow cheeses to come to room temperature before serving, and space the cheeses so there is ample room for guests to easily cut portions. Allow each cheese its own serving knife, and let guests know what kind of cheese they are eating by creating little name flags on appetizer sticks and pierce through each variety.
- Place crackers and breads in separate bowls, keeping bread warm and covered with a towel.
- Savory sides can include assorted Spanish and Greek olives, caperberries, roasted sweet red peppers, blanched asparagus, spicy mustards and slices of cured meats and sausages.
- Sweet sides can include fruits such as grapes, slices of fresh melon, figs, pears, dried cherries, toasted almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts, flavored honey, plum and apricot preserves, balsamic spiced mustard and jalapeno jelly.
- Remember to have fun with your choices. And if all else fails or you feel overwhelmed, a crisp Riesling, bubbly Champagne or fruity Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) pairs well with most fresh, mild, creamy and rich cheeses. Don’t despair — your guests will appreciate your effort, creativity and generosity.