Pairing Cheese and Alcohol

June 22, 2010

First off, my instructor for “Le Nez du Vin”: The Nose of Wine gave a cautionary piece of advice when pairing cheese and wine, which I think would apply to all cheese and alcohol pairings. He said that when you are trying to taste and evaluate wine, serving cheese is a bad idea because it has oil that coats the mouth and affects how you taste. However, if you are just drinking a wine, cheese is an excellent accompaniment.

That said, I came across this little bit on page 155 in the Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest by Tami Parr, and I felt like I had to share it.

For the uninitiated, pairing cheese and spirits can seem completed; novices often fear that they won’t do it right. In fact, pairing beverages and cheeses is really as simple as being present to the flavors your mouth is experiencing.

Start out with this principle: a good pairing is one where the flavors of both the beverage and the cheese are enhanced by the combination. In the best pairings, you may find that the pairing produces a remarkable transformation on your palate, and a third flavor revelation emerges. Bad pairings are easy to discern and will almost certainly cause your mouth to screw up involuntarily in an odd contortions as a result of the bitter, awkward flavors generated in your mouth. In fact, bad pairings are one easy way to start educating yourself about the ins and outs of pairing cheese and wine. Try a few pairings of wine and cheese, even random ones, and start paying attention to how combinations fit into broad categories.

Wine is the classic beverage for pairing with cheese, but that’s only the beginning. Some find that beer pairs well, if not better, than wine. Other beverages such as sake, cider, and limbic ales can also be nicely paired with cheese. More recently, people are beginning to experiment with pairing coffee and cheese, as well as whiskey and cheese.

Following are a few basic pairing principles to start you on your pairing adventures:

Trust Your Own Palate

Pairings are very subjective, and despite what anyone tells you, there are no right or wrong answers – really…

Pair Like with Like

Pay attention to the relative intensity of flavors you are pairing. Generally speaking, very strong flavored cheeses paired with light, dry libations won’t work because the cheese will overpower the wine. By the same token, a big red wine… will drown out a subtly flavored soft-ripened goat cheese. Pairing this way does neither produce a favor. That being said, see the next rule.

Be Open to the Unexpected

Whatever rules you might have learned may prove false with any given pairing at any given time. Cheese flavors vary throughout the year due to the diet of the animals and seasonal variations in butterfat content of milk; wines and beers also vary by vintage and by batch. In addition, counterintuitive pairs often work very well. For example, ports typically pair well with strongly flavored blue cheeses. You just never know.

The Wisconsin Milk Marking Board does have a nifty website showing what cheeses go well with what wine, food, spirits, and beers.

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