Last month, we touched on some basics around dessert wines and their terminology. This month – as dinner party season fast approaches with the holidays – let’s wow your guests with some basics around dessert wine and cheese pairings.
I recently spoke to a well-traveled epicurean friend of mine, Carrie Voorhis, who used to manage a cheese and wine shop in Indianapolis, Indiana. Every day she’d help folks like us find the perfect compliments to wines from all over the world.
Her high-level take is that many people have an immediate fondness for sweet wines from the very start of developing their palate – as kids, we all loved candy so it’s not a stretch. Many a wine lover begins their education here and graduates on to drier wines. Truth be told, this is how I started out on my Bacchanalian journey, advancing from white zinfandel to merlot to hearty cabs. But make no mistake. “Not that that means a sweet wine is simple or can’t be extraordinary,” Voorhis warns. “One of the most legendary and naturally most expensive wines in the world is a Sauternes – Chateau d’Yquem.”
Often, I prefer to order dessert wine as my primary dessert, rather than accompanying anything. But pairing dessert wine with a lovely cheese platter feels like just the right touch of simple sophistication.
So what are some basic guidelines around perfect cheese and wine pairings? As with any wine pairing, the trick is to choose a wine that won’t overpower the food or vice versa. Beyond that, go with what you like. Sweet and salty combinations seem to be a hit so feel free to serve your wine and cheese alongside dried fruits or fruit compotes such as grapes, stone fruits and figs, candied nuts (especially walnuts), fruit and nut breads. The clash of sweetness, sharpness and saltiness will create a symphony on your tongue.
- Port and Stilton. Serve with pears for an especially divine touch of sweetness.
- Sauternes or any of the white sweet wines – Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, late harvest Reislings (like Trefethen’s perhaps) - and a strong Bleu Cheese like Roquefort, Bleu d’Auverne, Forme d’Ambert. The sweetness will contrast nicely with the cheese’s rock ‘em, sock ‘em sharpness.
- Sherry and Cheddar. You might see this combination more commonly as an aperitif but it’s YOUR dessert, darn it, do what feels good! Trivia tidbit for you courtesy of Wikipedia: Real Sherry is a fortified wine made in and around the town of Jerez, Spain and hence in Spanish it is called "Vino de Jerez".
- Champagne and a Triple Crème Brie, like St. Andre. As we discussed last month, some champagnes are light enough for dessert wines and as Voorhis puts it, “It makes a damn fine dessert.”
Carrie’s ultimate favorite wine and cheese pairing? A glass of Beaumes de Venise and a piece of Forme d’Ambert.
One golden rule to keep in mind, which I admit to guiltily breaking myself: Remember that it’s a cheese course, not a cheese-crushed-onto-bread course. While you may be served pepper-flecked water crackers or sinfully warm and crusty French bread, these nibbles serve only to enhance and cleanse your palate between different cheeses.
Final advice from our pro? As always, cheese and wine pairings are about what you like. But start with the classics like these guidelines above to see what is possible first and then experiment from there based on your own preferences and mood. “If people have been drinking Port with Stilton for about 300 years,” Voorhis wryly comments, “there must be something to it!”
Dessert Wine Pick of the Month: This month’s is from Nectar Wine Lounge in San Francisco’s Marina District: 2004 Chateau Pierre-Bise, Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu ‘Les Rounannières - ‘a fresh baked marzipan confection drizzled with quince honey and kumquat slices.’ Now that’s what I call a vivid and useful wine description!
Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists. She is based in Seattle.