In recent years, the cheese course has been making a comeback in American restaurants. Where once it was primarily a French indulgence, now restaurants from New York to San Francisco—and even Utah—are offering cheese courses in lieu of, or in addition to, dessert.
Eateries like Handle, Pago, Copper Common, Eva, Martine, Atlantic Cafe, High West Distillery and an assortment of others include cheese plates as menu options. Personally, I much prefer a slice or two of cheese and a piece of fruit or some nuts after dinner over sweet, heavy desserts. But as with any other food & wine pairing, there are guidelines to follow when choosing wine to complement cheese, and vice versa.
With the holiday season just ahead, it's a good time to be thinking about wine & cheese pairings for parties, holiday dinners and other social get-togethers. A great way to discover what wines go with which cheeses is to throw a cheese & wine tasting party. There are lots of options here. One is to focus on a particular style of cheese. For example, you might want to limit yourself to cow's milk cheddar cheeses: perhaps Irish cheddar, cheddar from Vermont and Canada, and English farmhouse cheddar. They're all similar, yet distinct. A different approach is to serve an array of cheeses in very different styles. For instance, you might start with a French chèvre followed by Spanish manchego, Swiss gruyere and finally a pungent blue cheese from California.
Next, select three or four different wines to try as you sample the cheeses—perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The idea here is to not only (hopefully) find cheese & wine affinities and matches, but also discover pairings that blow. It's all part of learning what flavors work together, and why. And here's a suggestion: Don't spend too much money on wine. Save the expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy for another time. Good, low-cost wines are perfect for cheese & wine pairings.
Contrary to popular belief, red wine is not always the best choice for pairing with cheese. Milder cheeses like goat cheese and brie tend to get overwhelmed by most red wines, except perhaps Rosé—a red wine (technically) that drinks like a white. As with other foods, the idea is to try to match fuller, richly flavored cheeses with full, richly flavored wines. Similarly, lighter wines will usually be better matches for lighter cheeses.
I've discovered, for example, that most hard cheeses cry out for red wine. However, bold cheese with bold wine isn't always a slam-dunk. One exception is sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano with subtle Champagne: truly a wine & cheese pairing made in heaven. I tend to like French Bordeaux and Cornas or even a super-Tuscan with cheddar cheese, although everyday Rhone reds and Beaujolais work well, too. I've also discovered that there are few better cheese & wine matches than that of a tangy goat cheese with Sauvignon Blanc, especially the chalky flavors of French Sancerre.
OK, remember what I said about not spending a lot of money on wine for cheese & wine pairings? Well, that doesn't apply to blue-veined cheese, because one of the truly great food and wine matches is salty, sharp blue cheese paired with the sweetness and acidity of Sauternes, a decidedly un-cheap wine. But you could also opt for the more classic combination of blue cheese and Port—and even an inexpensive Port like Fonseca Bin 27 will put a huge smile on your face when sipped with crumbled blue cheese and candied walnuts.