Want to throw a wine and cheese party this holiday season that goes well beyond a block of Cheddar, a wedge of Brie, and a bottle or two of Merlot and Chardonnay? We asked Tara Mathison, wine and spirits consultant and sommelier at the Heights Chateau wine cellar in Brooklyn, N.Y. (and a vegetarian since 1995), for professional tips on great wine and cheese combinations. Pair your choices with easy, wine-friendly recipes from frequent VT contributor Victoria Abbott Riccardi, and you've got a full-on tasting experience that'll satisfy everyday cheese lovers and gourmet connoisseurs alike.
Selection tips: When putting together a cheese assortment, "You don't want to blow the bank, but you want to have a nice variety for your guests," says Mathison."I usually start with mild or light cheeses and work toward the more 'stinky' varieties." A mild Brie or Camembert, a sheep or goat cheese, a hard cheese, and a blue cheese will give you a good basic selection, she says. From there you can add favorites or experiment with cheeses that pique your interest. "Maytag Blue, a very delicate, light style of blue cheese is the gateway to more robust types," recommends Mathison. "Another tried-and-true is Explorateur, my favorite triple-cream, which is slightly stinky but an all-around winner."
Prep tip: Bring all cheeses to room temperature before serving.
Serving tips: Label each cheese with a short description so guests know what they're trying. As an accompaniment, "Opt for water crackers or a bread that has a neutral flavor," advises Mathison. "You want to cleanse the palate, not junk it up." Scatter platters with nuts and dried fruit or low-acid fresh fruit, such as apples, pears, and grapes. (And don't forget some chocolate!)
Tasting tip: For the first go-round, advise tasters to sample the mildest cheeses first, then the strongest. "After that, they can decide whether to follow the suggested order or not," explains Mathison.
Selection tips: The easiest way to narrow down wine selections to a perfect few? Choose a tasting theme. "I fell in love with wine through Rioja, so if I were having a tasting, it would probably be Spanish wines and cheeses," admits Mathison. If you want to mix it up, try devoting a tasting to a certain varietal, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which is produced in many parts of the world, each tasting a bit different thanks to terroir (the soil and climate where the grapes are grown). Other fun themes include blind tastings (where guests don't know what kind of wine they're trying), organic wines, or comparing wines of the same price range.
Prep tips: Most red wines are meant to be served slightly above room temperature. White wines do well between 40° and 50°F. About 30 minutes before the first pour, uncork the white wines and place them in buckets or a tub with a 2:1 ratio of cold water to ice. One sommelier trick is to add salt to the ice-water mixture to chill the wines faster.
Serving tips: For a traditional wine pairing and tasting experience, plan on serving about 1 ounce of a wine with each cheese, or just enough to allow the taster to experience the wines' attributes without dulling the palate. If you're hosting a wine and cheese event that is more of a cocktail party, expect each guest to drink one glass of wine per hour during the party. One bottle of wine contains about six glasses.
Pairing tips: Usually soft cheeses go best with white wines and harder cheeses pair well with reds.
Tasting tip: Encourage samplers to wait a couple of minutes after you pour before tasting the wine.