I ruined all my future potential for joy that first time I tasted Roquefort with Canadian ice wine.
I was on a trip with a then-partner in his home region of Niagara-on-the-Lake, a wine-growing area just outside of Toronto, enjoying some time among the vines. I was a novice, with zero knowledge of wine fundamentals, so the tasting room attendant showed me the light. Wanting to expose me to the wonders of nectarlike ice wine, she carved a nugget of salty, funky Roquefort and changed the course of my life.
I took a sip of syrupy, near-cloying wine, followed by a nibble of the creamy cheese. Though, individually, the wine and cheese felt like short, jagged bursts of an incomplete musical score, together, the strong, sharp flavors of the cheese and the luscious fruitiness of the wine felt like a symphony. It was harmony.
I've held on to that memory for a decade now — it has guided my approach to pairing wine with food. I learned that lightning doesn't strike the same place twice, and perfection is a fool's errand.
When it comes to food and wine pairings, few hold the imagination or drive sales quite like dramatic cheese plates surrounded by bottles of wine. Creamy Camemberts, funky epoisses, sharp Vermont cheddar and grassy manchego represent an atlas of flavor on a plate — why not indulge with some vino while you're at it? Unfortunately, a myth prevails that there's a perfect solution to pairing each cheese with a specific vinous suitor.
Question for you: When was the last time you were hanging out by a party's cheese plate, talking with friends and other partygoers about how great the pairings were? Do you remember what you were even eating or drinking? Was there a quiz at the end of the party?
I hope the answer to all these questions is "Oh my, no." Because what a boring fete!
Just like that old convention of pairing red wines with meat, whites with fish, most rules governing cheese pairings are tiresome and keep you in a box. Stop worrying, start drinking.
But I suppose you came here for actual tips, not a treatise. I'll oblige.
The first and last lesson I've picked up about wine and food pairings is to throw out the tasting notes. There are so many other factors in a wine that make them suitable for food pairings, and knowing that a Beaujolais Villages wine tastes like cranberries, black pepper and violets is less useful than knowing about its texture (weight, minerality, tannins), acidity level, alcohol level and sweetness.
A great wine balances all of these elements, and as such, often makes a great food partner — that includes cheese. Wines that tend toward weighty, oaky, tannic and boozy are often just too much for food, and certainly overpower the often subtle flavors of cheese.
When I'm planning to have friends over for drinks and cheese, I tend to stock up on cool-climate wines, whites and reds. I avoid big, bruisy wines, which generally hail from warmer regions and tend toward over-ripeness, low acidity and higher alcohol levels. Wines like Aussie shiraz, Argentine malbec and Napa cabernet have their place, sure, particularly those nights I want to channel my inner Olivia Pope or am digging into a giant steak, but for brunch, book club or a casual hang, light and nimble wines do the trick.
Easygoing Sicilian frappato and cool-climate Loire Valley cabernet francs are my go-to reds, mainly because both express softer tannins and higher acidity. They're lively and tend toward funky, a nice foil for grassy or stinky cheeses.
France's Loire Valley and Beaujolais regions produce some of the country's best drink-me-now wines. In recent years, the general "vin de table" (table wine) or "vin de France" designations have modernized beyond old associations with plonk. You'll find many wines now carrying these on their label instead of vineyard or appellation designations — some contemporary winemakers feel boxed in by traditional methods governed by appellation d'origine controlee certification. The trade-off for eschewing AOC strictures is greater control for the winemaker.
These wines range from $15 to $30 — reasonable and not outrageous — and they pack a lot of flavor for the price. Producers I recommend include La Boutanche, whose wines feature cheeky updates on the critter labels of yesteryear, and Domaine Catherine et Pierre Breton, one of the Loire's masters of mind-blowing and complex cabernet franc. Though the big-name wines of the Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhone regions still get a lot of love from grocery stores and volume retailers, wines from the Loire Valley have been taking over more shelf space, especially in better-curated wine shops, where small-production winemakers often land.
For frappato, try Marchese Montefusco ($15), a nice introduction to Sicily's food-friendly indigenous grape. Sicily is a great region to explore value-driven, small-production wines, and this frappato — full of aromatic berry flavors and soft, smooth tannins — is no exception.
When it comes to white wines, I tend to turn to cool-climate U.S. regions. I head south from big-name regions Napa and Sonoma for Santa Barbara's fresh, apple-forward chardonnays, which don't often see the oak treatment so common in Napa. The wines there have a tendency toward freshness and vibrancy, with relatively common apple and pear flavors. Apples go with cheese, right? Seek out names like Qupe, Au Bon Climat and Ojai Vineyard, which have strong national distribution.
Over in the east, New York state's cool Finger Lakes region produces excellent and electric riesling, a far cry from the sweeter blue German bottles of the '80s. Producers to look out for include pioneers Hermann J. Wiemer, Red Tail Ridge and Dr. Konstantin Frank, which all grow and bottle estate fruit, with a hands-on and personal approach to their vineyard practices.
Of course, if all else fails, you can't go wrong with pairing cheese with sparkling wine. Life's a party — stop fretting the small stuff.