Wine and cheese are a popular and natural combo, but the art of pairing these is not always as easy as it looks.
At the first annual Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, James Beard award-winning author and cheese expert Laura Werlin and Vice President of Education at Jackson Family Wines Gilian Handelman hosted a wine and cheese pairing seminar. The tasting cycled through seven cheeses and five wines, mixing and matching to figure out what goes well together, as well as combinations to stay away from.
Here are a few overarching rules, California cheese and wine pairings to inspire you.
Taste Wine Before Cheese
“It’s important to taste your wine before you taste the cheese, because the cheese will have a greater impact on the flavor of the wine,” Werlin explains. Also, remember that it’s not just about flavor but texture too. Cheese can range from super soft and creamy to hard and crystallized, while wines have a lighter or heavier mouthfeel. She recommends that you think about both flavor and texture as you evaluate a pairing. Sometimes a wine might dominate a cheese, or vice versa, but the best pairings create a crescendo of both flavors.
Sparkling Wines are Safe Bets
If you’re not really sure where to start, sparkling wines are a safe bet. “The acid, fruit and tiny touch of sugar in sparkling wine rejuvenate the palate,” Handelman says. Not every sparkling wine enhances every cheese, but you usually won’t go too wrong.
“Bubbles are textural and act as scrubbers refreshing your palate,” Werlin adds. Dry sparkling wines help clear some of the fattiness from the cheese that coats your palate and several of the cheeses, like Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog soft-ripened goat cheese and Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel, paired best with La Crema brut rosé. The sparkling rosé really complements the lemony tang and buttery finish of the goat cheese and contrasts nicely with the nutty, round caramelized sweetness of Wagon Wheel, which is comparable to a raclette or fontina.
Red Wines are Trickier to Pair
Werlin admits that red wines are generally harder to pair with cheese than white or sparkling wines. It’s ironic, considering that cheese courses are often served at the end of the meal when most people drink red wine. Red wine offers more opportunities for disastrous pairings, such as eating a creamy cheese that exaggerates the wine’s tannins. The rind of some soft-ripened cheeses, like brie, can even make certain wines taste soapy.
“Cow’s milk is often perceived as sweeter on the palate,” Werlin says. “So that can strip the fruit from the wine.” Consider pairing cow’s milk cheese with more fruit-forward red wine rather than an earthier red. For example, Bellwether Farms San Andreas raw sheep milk cheese is lovely paired with Siduri 2018 Barbieri Vineyard pinot noir, which is smooth and supple with notes of juicy red cherries and plum. The cheese is grassy and granular, similar to a Tuscan pecorino, and the retronasal finish lays a nice foundation for the elegant, fruity pinot noir.
Try These Perfect Pairings
Tastings at Jordan Winery always include a cheese plate, and chef de cuisine Jonathan Musto serves Cypress Grove Lamb Chopper and Fiscalini Old World Cheddar with estate honey harvested from Jordan’s apiary and housemade mostarda from seasonal estate fruits. The Old World Cheddar has a nutty, slightly smoky flavor and earthy finish that works well with Jordan’s Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon while Lamb Chopper beautifully complements the crisp, racy acidity of Jordan’s Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Winemaker Maggie Kruse exercises careful restraint in her use of French oak to allow the fruit to shine, hewing to an elegant Burgundian-style of winemaking.
At Chalk Hill, you can order a cheese and charcuterie platter to enjoy with a flight of estate wines on the terrace overlooking the vineyards. Chalk Hill is most famous for making some of the best chardonnay in Sonoma and the 2019 Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay has just the right balance of rich, creamy stone fruit to pair with Marin French Cheese Co’s brie. The 2017 Chalk Hill Estate Red, with its intense flavors of tobacco, blackberry and dark chocolate pairs better with the espresso and lavender hand-rubbed Barely Buzzed aged cheddar by Beehive Cheese Company.
Bricoleur Vineyards has one of the most beautiful tasting rooms in Sonoma County and their family-style dinners include handmade pastas, pizzas and charcuterie and cheese boards, where Cowgirl Creamery Inverness is paired with Bricoleur’s Rosé of Pinot Noir. “This cheese is briny with a touch of funk which complements the wine’s strawberry guava notes and allows for the bright acidity to cut through the creamy cheese, readying your palate for the next bite,” says executive chef Thomas Bellec. He recommends Bohemian Creamery Flower Power, dusted with local bee pollen, to pair with “Flying By the Seat of Our Pants” Rosé of Grenache. “The floral flavors in this rosé complement the flavors of milk and honey in this hand-crafted cheese.”
Book the Art of Pinot Noir tasting at Emeritus Vineyards for a deep dive into pinot noir accompanied by cheese pairings. Guests compare different single-vineyard pinot noirs, learning to taste the toma difference in clone and terroir, and how the wines change when food is introduced. The experience includes two different California cheeses – Midnight Moon from Cypress Grove in Humboldt County and toma from Point Reyes Farmstead – along with two different fruit compotes so you can mix and match to find your perfect pairing.
Visit Point Reyes Cheese for a tasting at their farm overlooking their pastures and Tomales Bay. You can bring your own bottle of wine to pair with their bountiful cheeseboard and grilled cheese sandwiches. Try the with Benovia pinot noir or the original blue cheese with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars recently released 2019 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon, where the dark fruit and hint of dusty cocoa accentuate the blue cheese’s peppery finish.
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Amber Gibson spends 340 nights a year in hotels searching for the latest and greatest in the travel industry. She graduated as valedictorian from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and received a fellowship to attend the 2017 Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood Napa Valley.