When time is at a premium ― as it inevitably is during the holidays ― every good cook looks for delicious shortcuts. And there's a perfect shortcut for a December gathering: cheese. Instead of inviting friends over for traditional hors d'oeuvres (and having to race around the kitchen preparing a half-dozen), why not build a get-together around a few great cheeses paired with some good wines? Markets are offering a wider array than ever these days ― of imported cheeses as well as top-quality artisan cheeses being produced in this country. From an entertaining standpoint, there's an added boon: Cheese doesn't need to be kept hot, and it doesn't need to be kept cold. The simplicity of the plan is brilliant.
There's just one problem: If you're relying on one kind of food alone, it has to work really well with wine. Conventional wisdom has it, of course, that cheese and wine are made for each other, period. The trouble with conventional wisdom is, it's conventional. Both cheese and wine are intricately flavored substances that change with ripeness and age. So why do we assume it will be effortless to pair such complex things?
I decided to experiment. Over the course of two weeks, I tasted each of 13 cheeses with 13 wines ― 169 flavor combinations in all. The cheeses were not the sort most supermarkets carry, but rather high-quality, moderately expensive varieties I bought at the Napa Valley branch of Dean & DeLuca, a gourmet food store chain (I figured we all deserve the best during the holidays). For every pairing, I proceeded the same way: a sip of the wine, a bite of the cheese, then another sip of the wine.
My goal was two-pronged but simple: The cheese had to make the wine taste great, and the wine had to make the cheese taste great. An extraordinary match couldn't be one-sided: If the cheese tasted fine with the wine, but the wine tasted hollow after a bite of the cheese, the pairing was a wash.
I chose wines that were excellent examples of their type (see below) and cheeses that represented a wide array of aromas, flavors, textures, and intensity levels, from absolutely mild to dramatically assertive. All perfectly ripe when I purchased them, the cheeses were Laura Chenel goat cheese from California; Le Gariotin chèvre (goat) cheese from France; Manchego, a slightly nutty sheep's milk cheese from Spain; Vella dry jack from California; Montgomery cheddar from England; aged Mahon, a sharp, rich, nutty, buttery cheese from Spain; Parmigiano reggiano from Italy; Bellwether Farms crescenza, a soft, mild cheese from California; taleggio, a luxuriously creamy, earthy cheese from Italy; Explorateur, a pungent, buttery triple-cream cheese from France; Old Amsterdam aged gouda, a sweet-sharp cheese from Holland; Sottocenere, a truffle-studded cheese from Italy; and Colston-Bassett Stilton, a sassy, pungent blue cheese from England.
1. Contrary to popular opinion, cheese and wine aren't an easy match. When components like salt in cheese come up against tannin and acid in wine, the result can be delicious ― or disastrous.
2. In my experiment, most of the pairings were neither awful nor wonderful; they were merely neutral ― you might not turn them away, but they also wouldn't make you say "Wow!" In fact, out of the 169 combinations, only the pairings below were wows.
3. Instinct might suggest that a full-throttle, intense cheese deserves a great wine. But instinct could be wrong. Many outrageously delicious cheeses swamp great wines and make them taste like Château $2.99.
4. A flavoring on or in a cheese can change the whole dynamic. Cheeses that are rolled in herbs or spices are harder to match. If the added flavoring is strong ― the cheese is studded with truffles, for example ― you'll have to be really choosy in finding a mate for it.
5. Red wines aren't necessarily more cheese-friendly than white ones. The most versatile wine of my whole experiment was Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine, which, astoundingly enough, tasted delicious with 7 of the 13 cheeses. (The most versatile cheese, by the way, was the Vella dry jack.)
With these caveats in mind, then, here are the cheese-and-wine combinations I thought were stellar. They would make superb fare for any holiday party.