Festive Feasts: Your Quick & Easy Guide to Wine and Cheese Pairings

Jade-Ceres Violet D. Munoz

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How does your family prepare for your Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve feast? A cheese board with a couple of glasses of wine plus an entire leg of champagne ham is our festive feast of choice.

While alcohol has been in my life since my late teens, I only discovered the joy of drinking wine in my 30’s after moving to a country with so many vineyards and wineries. There’s nothing quite like wine tasting overlooking the ocean. The spray of saltwater and the smell of the sea complete the experience.

However, as a novice wine drinker, I never know what to pair my glass of Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux, or Chardonnay with the items on my charcuterie board. So, I decided to reach out to a professional and asked for help from Franco Salzillo, a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers America.

He has worked his way through all types of food and wine pairings throughout his sommelier career. From classic combinations including gorgeous fresh oysters with tangy French Sancerre to out-of-the-box combinations, including colorful Mexican and Indian food with wild New World wines.

Salzillo says, “pairing food and wine is all about experimentation. You mix and match flavors and textures to complement and contrast both the food and our favorite fermented grape juice. The result? A gastronomic experience that is larger than the sum of its parts.”

For wine pairings, though, there’s nothing like finding the right wine to go with cheese. So, here’s a quick and easy guide to help you master wine and cheese pairing. Whether you use it for your own festive feasts during the holidays or to become a better host, it is a skill that will always be handy.

Say Cheese!

The realm of cheese is as complex as wine. There are literally thousands of different types of cheese, all with their own well-defined personality. The best approach is to classify cheese in families, and here’s how that goes.

Fresh Cheese and Soft Rind Cheese

Our first cheese category comprises cheese that hasn’t been aged, curd cheese, and cheese that has been briefly aged to allow a soft, bloomy rind to form. Fresh cheese tends to be lower in fat and have a light milky taste. Soft cheese, on the other hand, is mild and creamy.

Goat’s cheese, mozzarella, ricotta, cottage, burrata, Brie and Camembert, they all fit the bill. This type of cheese is fresh and lively, and those are precisely the characteristics we look for in a matching wine.

Wines to try: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño, Muscadet, Vinho Verde, Chenin Blanc, Un-oaked Chardonnay, and Dry Riesling.

Semi-Hard Cheese

Some cheese styles are aged for longer; they lose their moisture and gain flavors and aroma intensity. Edam, Gouda, young Cheddar, Emmental, Reblochon, Port Salut, Raclette, St Nectaire, and Monterey Jack fall into this category. The taste profile varies from mild to sharp. As the cheese becomes fattier and palate-coating, it needs a wine with tannins to bond with that fatty unctuousness.

Wine Fact: What are tannins, anyway? Tannins are gritty particles in red wine that bind with protein molecules, causing a drying sensation in the mouth. Red wines with bold flavors and medium tannins pair better with semi-hard cheese.

Wines to try: Merlot, Carmenere, young Malbec, young Bordeaux, Barbera and Valpolicella.

Hard Cheese

Hard cheese has lost most of its moisture, and its texture has changed from rubbery to crumbly. Aged Cheddar, Pecorino, Beaufort, Manchego, Gruyere, and Parmesan are gorgeous examples. To pair these intense types of cheese, we’re pulling out the big guns — bold, structured red wines with massive tannins and flavor intensity.

Wines to try: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Aged Malbec, Aged Bordeaux, Meritage Blends, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo.

Blue Cheese

Blue cheese is somewhat of an oddity. The curd is injected with a mold (Penicillium roqueforti) that creates greenish-blue ‘veins’ across the cheese. This funky type of cheese is not for the inexperienced and more of an acquired taste — once you get the hang of it, though, you never go back.

Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Swiss Blue Cheese, and Cabrales are extraordinary examples. For blue cheese and all their saltiness, the safest bet is to balance them with sweet wine. You’ll have to try this pairing to believe how awesome it is.

Wines to try: Ruby Port, Sauternes, Moscato, Tokaji, Madeira, Sweet Sherry, Aussie Stickies, Reciotto Della Valpolicella, Sweet Vinsanto, and Late Harvest wines.

How’s that for a cheat sheet?

The truth is, there are no universal food and wine pairings because we all like different things! Get yourself a variety of cheese with your local cheesemonger and a few bottles of wine. See what works for you!

The best part of creating your own combinations is sharing them with your friends and family, so call some folks over and enjoy a good glass of wine and a nice cheese tray. If everyone has a good time, then you'll know you were successful.

My Holiday Cheese and Wine Choices:

Taking Salzillo’s tips to heart, I know what I’d want to experiment with for the holiday season:

  • Gorgonzola and Moscato - Gorgonzola is about the only blue cheese I could eat. This being the holidays, I think it would be nice to have something more adventurous in my cheese platter after the year we’ve all had. Moscato, on the other hand, is the very first glass of wine that I’ve tried and fell in love with. The sweet fruity taste would be a great palate cleanser after a bite of pungent blue.
  • Goat cheese and Sauvignon Blanc - I grew up eating fresh goat cheese, so it’s always my go-to soft cheese. I like how the acidity of Sauvignon Blanc cuts through the heavy creaminess of goat cheese. The citrus notes are also great for bringing out the slightly nutty flavor of goat cheese.
  • Aged Cheddar with Cabernet Sauvignon - I like finishing off my cheese board choices with something strong and bold, some good old crumbly aged cheddar would be fantastic for the occasion. The matching bold flavors of cabernet sauvignon would be a wonderful pair with this.

I may not be a cheese and wine pro, but this looks like the perfect way to celebrate the holidays for me. Hope you learned something awesome today.

#nbholidaycheer

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