Wine Talk: Prepare to pair

Have a festive wine-and-cheese party for Shavuot complete with some cut-up vegetables and bunch of grapes for decoration.

Wine (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shavuot seems to me like an excellent excuse to have a wine and cheese party.
If not now, when? Since biblical times, there has been no better or more basic, rustic meal than a hunk of freshly baked bread accompanied by cheese and a pitcher or carafe of wine. It is a scene that has helped to accentuate the fact that wine and cheese are natural partners.
I recommend asking friends to participate by bringing either a bottle of wine or a small cheese, and you have a ready-made party. You need a minimum of only five cheeses, and these ideally should be different types. (You don’t want to end up, for example, with five blue cheeses.) The cheeses should be cut in blocks or in wedges and left on a cheese board in the center of the table. There should be a good sharp cheese knife on hand to make cutting easier.
It is advisable to prepare some cut-up vegetables like carrots, peppers and celery to clean the palate, and to put out some bottles of sparkling water or soda. Freshly cut apple also accompanies cheeses well.
A bunch of grapes can provide good decoration, as well as being popular and easy to eat.
You need some fresh bread, ideally hot from the baker’s oven, a crusty baguette cut up or some plain cheese biscuits. (This could be a good use for a box of leftover unopened matza. We always end up with a lot left over!) Finally, a small dish of olive oil, possibly with a splash of balsamic vinegar in it, would be great for bread dipping.
If you want to organize a more formal event, it is very easy to transform the party into a cheese-and-wine tasting. Then you can have the fun of deciding which wine goes with which cheese. To prepare this, you need wines of different types (dry, semi-dry, sweet, unoaked and oak aged).
Give everyone a glass. Pour the relevant wine, taste the different cheeses, and then discuss which goes best with the particular cheese. A nibble of each cheese and a sip of wine is all that is required. You can try to examine why one combination works and another doesn’t.
You will find that not every cheese goes with every wine, and there can be horrible clashes. For instance, there is a common misconception that red wine is the most natural partner for cheese, but often white wines will go better and be more versatile.
The world of cheese is probably more complicated and varied even than the world of wine, which is complicated enough. Cheese may be strong flavored, fat, acidic or salty. It can be hard, soft, creamy or crumbly. It can be matured, pasteurized or unpasteurized; made from goat’s, cow’s or sheep’s milk.
In other words, it is a difficult world to learn, but there are basic guidelines for matching cheese and wines that may be followed: Red wines do not go with soft, fatty, creamy, salty or smelly cheeses.
Often, dry white or even sweet wines will be far better combinations.
Try to match the acidity of the wine and cheese.
Try to contrast the saltiness of the cheese.
To simplify the issue, most cheeses can be placed into one of the following categories:
Hard cheeses
A hard cheese that is firm and not aged too much will go well with a medium to full-bodied red wine. Cheddar and Parmesan are classic examples of fine red-wine cheeses. In the same way the English add milk to lessen the tannin of the strong tea they drink, the cheese will soften the tannin in the wine. However, if the cheese is older and more pungent, the wine needs to be more mature and less tannic to avoid a clash. For this you will need older vintages.
Soft cheeses
This is the hardest category to find a wine match. A creamy, fatty cheese will make most reds seem like water. The fat in the cheese will neutralize the tannin. Alternatively, an oaky and tannic red wine will taste slightly metallic when these cheeses are ripe and runny. A pasteurized Brie or Camembert would best be served alongside a lightly oaked Chardonnay with good acidity.
If you prefer a red wine, one that is soft, full of fruit and has no astringency will be adequate.
For a soft cheese like mozzarella, a delicately flavored, unoaked dry wine, without too much varietal character, is preferable.
A simple fruity white wine would be a good choice. The slightly more acidic feta would need a wine with higher acidity like an aromatic Sauvignon Blanc.
Blue cheese
Salt accentuates tannin, so the myth that red wine goes with all cheeses is shown to be most false when a red wine is matched with a blue cheese. However as compensation, there are two possible matches made in heaven. Roquefort with a sweet, high-quality dessert wine and Stilton with a port style wine are ideal combinations.
The salt and sweetness contrast to enhance both cheese and wine. Tasting these together should be part of any course matching food and wine to illustrate that the theory does sometimes work and that one plus one can equal three. However, the rule does not always apply. Authentic Danish blue and the strongest gorgonzola may just be too strong to be wine-friendly.
Goat’s cheese
This category produces Israel’s finest cheeses. They have a strong character but can go with either white or red wines. The classic combination for a young goat’s cheese is a varietal Sauvignon Blanc. An aged chèvre can be matched successfully with a mature, well-structured and not tannic red like a Merlot. Avoid excessive tannin, which will clash with the pungent flavor of the cheese.
Smoked cheese
The best bet to go with an Austrian smoked cheese is a spicy white wine with slight sweetness, but not too much. A Gewurztraminer or Emerald Riesling would suffice.
With a New York cheesecake, there is nothing better than a fortified, grapey Muscat.
So cheese and wine do go together, but not every cheese is the perfect accompaniment with every wine. If the prime objective is a wine tasting, it is self-defeating to choose cheeses that show the wines badly.
The Israeli cheese and wine industries have much in common. Both had a bad image not so long ago, but both have undergone quality revolutions in the last 20 years.
Today, there are so many wineries and local dairies, covering the map of Israel. Without a doubt, the giant strides that Israel has made in areas of food culture and gastronomy can best be sampled in its cheeses and wines. So go and have a party!
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.[email protected]