Wine and Cheese Pairings for Holiday Fun

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A wine and cheese party is a fun idea for the holidays! Enhance your cheese tasting enjoyment with help from a good wine and cheese pairing chart.

The holiday season is the ultimate time to eat, drink and be merry. There’s Christmas dinner, of course. But there are plenty of other opportunities to share the joy of the season: after-work gatherings with co-workers, friends who are back in town to visit family, neighborhood get-togethers…or just because! So for one of the more casual gatherings, why not host a wine and cheese party?

A cheese and wine tasting is perfect for the holiday season; it requires very little preparation, yet sounds—and feels—sophisticated enough to impress. All it takes is a little planning, and some basic knowledge that is readily available…starting right here.

Slate Cheese Board

Wine and Cheese Party Ideas

Keep it simple. It’s the holidays; you have enough going on. Don’t overwhelm guests with too many choices. Four or five cheeses are plenty, especially when there’s other food around (and there should be…more on that later). And with careful cheese selection, you may even get by with just one white and one red wine.

Don’t break the bank. Again, it’s the holidays, and you’ve probably spent plenty on gifts. There’s no need to spend $40 on half a pound of a stinky, runny (albeit awesome) French cheese when there are plenty of interesting artisanal specialty cheeses made by award-winning Master Cheesemakers here in the heartland. Likewise, a selection of medium-priced wines will do very nicely. The holidays are for sharing joy and goodwill, not showing off.

Offer other foods. Unlike in the children’s song “The Farmer in the Dell,” the cheese doesn’t stand alone…or at least it shouldn’t. Cheese by nature is pretty rich, and not nutritionally balanced. You want some carbs present to help soak up the alcohol, as well as to give everyone’s palate a break. A variety of crackers, crusty baguettes or other bread will do the trick.

Speaking of cleansing the palate, be sure to have plenty of water on hand—which will also help pace the party. Do as the French and Italians do and offer a nice bottled sparkling or still water (in glass bottles—cheap plastic is a bad image and bad for the environment).

It’s always a healthful choice to offer some raw veggies and fruits. Just make sure the fruits are neutral, like apples and pears—no citrus, as it will clash with the wine—and the veggies are carrots, celery and the like. Nothing intensely green; stay away from asparagus, and definitely avoid artichokes, which do not work or play well with wine.

Other than that, some lightly garlicky bruschetta (broos-KETT-ah) is always nice, as is good olive oil for dipping the bread. And wine and cheese simply love sausage and other charcuterie meats; just remember, the cheese and wine are the stars and everything else should complement them.

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Cheese Tasting Tips

Identify the cheeses. Make cheese labels and tasting cards so guests know what they’re tasting. Include wine suggestions (we’ll cover that in a bit).

Serve everything at the right temperature. Take the cheese out of the fridge 1 to 2 hours before starting. Room-temperature cheese always tastes best. As for wines, chill white wines 2–3 hours before serving. They should be served at 50 to 60 degrees. Stick red wines in the fridge 1 to 2 hours before serving; they should be served at 55 to 65 degrees (cellar temperature), not room temperature. Pinot noir is best at 55; big reds like cabernet and zinfandel on the upper end at 65.

Mildest to strongest. Always start with the mild cheeses (Brie, Havarti, butterkäse) and work your way through the sharper cheeses (Asiago, sharp Cheddar) to the heavy hitters (blue cheeses, Limburger). Adjust any flavored cheeses accordingly; an otherwise mild Havarti or Gouda will shoot up the scale if flavored with horseradish or chipotle. Bottom line: A strong cheese will overwhelm your palate, and you won’t be able to taste subtle nuances of the milder cheeses.

The same principle generally applies to sampling wines (white to red, dry to sweet), but at this party the cheese is the star; the wines fall in line according to the cheeses they complement. And since we’re on the subject…

Wine-Cheese Pairing Chart/Tips

Pairing wine with cheese follows the same principles as other food pairings: they should either complement or contrast. For example, the tobacco notes in shiraz complement a smoked Cheddar or Gouda, while an acidic wine will cut through the richness of a Brie.

Generally speaking, red wines are much more difficult to pair with cheeses than whites because of their high tannin content; however—as the old saying goes—there’s someone for everyone. A well-aged Cheddar or salty Parmesan is excellent with a big cabernet sauvignon or Valpolicella.

The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert in cheese or wine to pull this off, since the experts have already done all the painstaking research for you. (It must be murder to have to taste all of these cheese and wine combinations!) When planning your party, simply decide which cheeses you want to serve, and then plan the wine selection by using a wine-cheese pairing chart.

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s excellent Cheese Cupid is fun to use, and goes beyond wine to include beer and spirits. (In Wisconsin, we love our beer and brandy, so it’s only natural.)

This more complex, yet very handy, cheese pairing chart includes wines, beer and spirits for all of your favorite cheeses, as well as complementary foods to help you with the rest of your shopping list.

While some online resources can get painfully specific with regard to precise wine and cheese pairings, these charts keep it simple by offering a variety of partners for your cheese. In fact, with just a few minutes of research, you can easily find wines (and other foods) that will pair successfully with more than one cheese, greatly simplifying the shopping experience and likely saving you a bit of money: time and money that can be spent eating more cheese!

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