Rockin' the Wedges
We’ve all been there. The holiday season is in full swing and friends, family, or co-workers are gathering at your place. You love to entertain, but feel a little unsure about planning and executing the perfect party without overdoing and stressing out.
A cheese and wine pairing is a wonderful way to ensure you will have as good a time as your guests do.
Perhaps you’re a cheese novice who wants to learn more about wheels and wedges, or a connoisseur at heart who wants to explore the art of pairing cheese and wine. Keeping things simple yet elegant—from what you’re putting on the cheese board to what you’re pouring—is easier than you think.
In today’s market, myriad cheeses are beckoning due to a renaissance of artisanal cheesemaking, and we get to enjoy an incredible array, whether domestic or European. When deciding on what to plate, it’s best to limit your selection to three to five different cheeses. More cheeses will overwhelm your guests and underwhelm the cheeses you want to taste and enjoy. With the addition of a couple of white or red wines, you’ll have plenty to sip and savor.
Include different textures, sizes, and shapes. Experimenting with styles made from cow, goat, and sheep milk, or a blend, promises unique flavors. Begin with a fresh, soft and spreadable like a plain or flavored chèvre (a light, tart and tangy goat’s milk cheese), or a soft-ripened (aka bloomy rind) cheese like a buttery triple crème, Brie, or Camembert. Add a semi-firm cheese like a rich Havarti or Gruyère, or venture into something bolder with a washed rind cheese like Taleggio or Epoisses (also referred to as Trappist-style). Complete your cheese offerings with an aged cheese like Gouda, sharp Cheddar, Manchego (a favorite sheep’s milk cheese from Spain), or that blue you love.
One of the most often asked questions is, “How much cheese should I buy?” Portion sizes vary depending on what other small bites you’re offering, but plan on between a half and an ounce and a half of each cheese per person. When it comes to serving, platters, trays, and boards can be used as a lovely backdrop or to help set the tone you’re looking for—elegant, holiday, or rustic? Depending on the setting (casual or formal) and time of service (before or after dinner, or the main event), a wooden or slate board, marble or granite piece, or your favorite heirloom plate will work nicely.
So, we’ve de-mystified what cheeses to purchase and how much of each you’ll need. Prep or cut your cheeses while they’re cold—they’re easier to handle. If you have a petite wheel of something soft and creamy, you can either leave it whole or start it for your guests by scoring it or removing the first piece. Pre-cut or slice others into two-bite wedges or rectangles for neater, easier serving. Leave enough room on the board for your guests to cut from the wheel or wedge if you’re going that route. Be sure to identify the cheeses with handwritten tags, paper flags, or mini chalkboards. Note the name, animal milk type, and origin.
Most important, bring your cheeses to room temperature for optimal enjoyment an hour before serving. Your cheeses will open up and express their full aromas and flavors. Stronger, more aromatic or pungent, or intensely-flavored cheeses like blues shouldn’t be placed next to delicately flavored cheeses.
Options are endless when considering what sweet and savory accompaniments to offer, but don’t overdo. Do have crusty bread, crisps, or plain crackers available in a basket for scooping up a runny cheese if you’ve got a deliciously ripe Brie or Camembert, and they help cleanse the palate. Sometimes, I opt for the simplicity of a yummy spreadable cheese topped with dried fruit or chutney on a separate plate surrounded by crackers.
Slices of fresh apples, peaches, or pears and small bunches of grapes add variety and color. I love using dried apricots, cherries, cranberries, and figs. Fill in with just of few of these: nuts or roasted seeds, preserves, compotes, cornichons, chutneys, charcuterie, local honeys, wine jellies, mustards, or olives.
Time to Pour a Glass
Now that the majority of your preparation is done, it’s wine time. First, go confidently. Start with what you know and enjoy (in case you have leftovers)—after all you’re hosting this soiree. Second, don’t complicate things with more than a couple of varieties—one white, one red will do. Third, there are no rules, only suggested ideas in the world of cheese and wine pairing. Finally, don’t overlook great wines priced under ten dollars. Ask for guidance and suggestions when shopping.
Lighter wines in body, flavor, and texture (white) will pair perfectly with soft, mild cheeses. Consider Chardonnay, or Pinot Gris, or reach for a festive sparkling wine...Champagne, Prosecco, or Spumante (not too sweet) are especially nice. All those little bubbles love to counter the fat in these rich, creamy cheeses!
When I think of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or my favorite Pinot Noir, my mind immediately goes to Swiss-style mountain cheeses like Emmentaler, Raclette, Comtè, or Beemster Gouda, rich with deep flavors. If you’re considering washed rind cheeses—those pungent cheeses with rosy rinds that are so misunderstood but incredibly delicious—again consider Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Syrah or Chianti.
If you’re into big, expressive reds, think big expressive cheeses. Italian cheeses like Asiago, Provolone, Piave, and Spanish cheeses like an aged Manchego are great paired with full-bodied reds. English cheeses and Cheddars are flavorful and often complex, like the seven-year-aged Old Quebec Cheddar, Cotswold, Huntsman, or Double Gloucester, all complimented deliciously with Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Zinfandel, Bordeaux, or other dry reds.
Last but never least, there is a world of blue cheese out there waiting for you. From the classics like Stilton to Roquefort to some of my domestic favorites like Rouge Creamery Smoky Blue or Point Reyes Blue, these cheeses are perfect partners with port, sherry, ice wines, and Sauternes. It’s a beautiful way to punctuate the end of a great gathering—something that reflects you and your personal style. Cheers!