Cheese will always make a great party opener. It can be put on a tray for a self serve; it can be put on toast point of some kind, then tray passed; it can even be manipulated a bit and paired with some other ingredients then served as a plated first course. However, one of the greatest things about cheese—it is a finished product that does not need anything else but to be enjoyed. Any manipulation done to cheese is only done to enhance its natural flavor.
Before one can choose a cheese, one needs to understand cheese. Cheese is broken down into 3 categories—soft, semi firm, and firm. The firmness of cheese is typically determined by its fat content and age. And to clarify, “American Cheese” is not a cheese; however, America does produce some great cheeses. In fact, America is starting to receive some recognition from other countries for the cheese it produces. Cheese is made all over the country and can range from region to region. Most notably, California and Wisconsin are currently producing some of the best cheeses in the country… “California means happy cows, and great things come from happy cows.”
Starting with a Soft Cheese, these are the ones that will most likely have the highest fat content. Brie, Cream Cheese, Mascarpone, Boursin are some of the most well known soft cheeses. By the way, Cream Cheese is an American product; in fact, other countries refer to cream cheese as “Philly Cheese.” The salty content in these cheese are not normally that high. Due to their texture, they are best enjoyed on a cracker or toast point of some kind. If one was looking to manipulate a cheese, a soft cheese is the best way to go. At times they can be pungent, but they also adopt to flavors very well.
The list of flavor possibilities is almost endless. I have always liken a soft cheese to a sparkling wine. Sparkling wines possess the same uncanny-ability as a soft cheese and canto be paired with just about anything. And for this, I strongly recommend a Sparkling and Soft cheese combination.
When finally deciding on exactly what Sparkling and Soft cheese duo to create, take into consideration the dryness of the wine and the salt content of the cheese. As with any pairing, one wants a harmonious balance of salt and sweet. Again, as with any pairing it is quite easy for one to over power the other.
Moving on to Semi Firm cheese, these cheeses have a bit of age on them. It is during the aging process that allows the natural moisture to evaporate, thus allowing the cheese to firm up. Cheddar, Swiss, Gruyere, and Havariti are a few examples of Semi Firm cheeses. The salt content in these cheeses are normally a bit higher and have a tendency to be known as sharp. The sharper the cheese, the older the cheese—normally. The incorporation of flavors is always done during the making process and is a little more difficult afterwards; while maintaining its composition. That being said, semi firm cheeses are great for sauces and fondues. These cheeses will carry more of an exact wine, based on the flavor profile of the cheese itself. General rule of thumb, look for a white that is soft, with a subtle sweetness and a hint of citrus. Some bold whites, such as reserve Chardonnay, will work too; as long as it can handle the natural richness of the cheese at hand. If one tastes a wine and craves (not to mention taste) bread (yeast), a good chance it will pair wonderfully with a semi firm cheese.
Does this mean a semi firm cheese will not pair with reds?
NO! Reds can pair with cheese also. A light body, soft (low in tannins) red will react in the same fashion as a stronger white and will pair nicely. Now I am sorry to say, an exact wine and cheese pairing can not be given. All taste is subjective, and everyone has their own likes and dislikes—a better and best.
Lastly, the firm cheese, these are cheese that have been aged for a long time. They are dry and have a good salt content. Most recognizable of this category is Parmesan Reggiano. These cheeses are aged in caves or other temperature controlled areas.
These cheeses can possess a nutty flavor, a very sharp flavor and at times a bitter flavor. These cheeses are best used in a finishing application, due to its strong, bold flavor. Picking a wine can be the most difficult of the 3 choices. One might think, bold cheese equals bold wine; however, that is not always the case. Yes, the desire is to have both food and wine be equal in boldness; but sometimes flavors will battle against each other with a negative outcome.
When picking the right wine for a firm cheese, think of a wine with some age; both bolder red and white wines will work. With these cheeses it is time to pull out the Syrah and Cabs. Again though, try not to go to strong.
Alas, one last question may still remain …”What about Blue Cheese?” Some might say, it is big cheese and thus a big wine is called for. On the contrary, I will say a strong, sharp, bit salty cheese and then I will say a sweet wine; like a late harvest wine. One of the best flavor combinations I have had, was pairing a bit of Pointe Reyes Blue Cheese with a 30 year old Sauternes. As always, there is no exact play list, but mere suggestions. Happy tastings and ENJOY.