I often hanker for a hunka cheese. Something about that creamy, protein-enriched stuff converts me over to cheese worship. So it's perfect that my two favorite consumables are a match made in heaven: wine and cheese. Although stringent food and wine pairings are not my bag, it's what readers ask about with plenty of fervor.
There are some tried-and-true cheese and wine pairings that don't require too much effort or thought. I enlisted the help of famous Atlanta cheesehead Raymond Hook to help me on the cheese side. He brought some amazing South Georgia artisanal cheeses from award-winning Sweet Grass Dairy (www.sweetgrassdairy.com) that are truly magnificent — especially the aged blue cheese made from goat's milk. I nearly fainted with bliss. After I recovered, we discussed stuff that comes straight out of chemistry class, like balancing acids and fat. But really, experience and experimentation are everything, so the more often you pair, the better you'll get.
In my opinion, the best wine to complement any cheese is dry sparkling wine. Brut sparkling, like Gloria Ferrer from California, makes friends with pretty much any cheese, from brie to limburger. In fact, brut sparkling is just about the only wine that will befriend limburger. The sour acids in the wine combat the saltiness of this strong, pungent cheese. But sparkling wine also shines with Brie, a salty, butterfat-laden cheese from France.
In addition, Brie adores buttery, toasty California Chardonnay, normal since most sparkling wines contain the Chardonnay grape. Try Brie with Viognier as well. One of my favorite cheeses, Cambozola, is from Germany and is essentially a Brie cheese with chunks of blue in it. It didn't really pop with anything except the sparkling, but the Chardonnay came close. However, Amish Havarti, a cheese high in salt, loved the Chardonnay.
Another safe bet with many cheeses is anything sweeter, like an off-dry Riesling or a French Vouvray, made from Chenin Blanc grapes. The sugar content in these wines cuts through the salt and balances the extremes. Maytag blue, Havarti with dill, and a French, Swiss-cheese type called Fol Epi, melded very well with Riesling and Vouvray.
For an exceptional experience, try a port wine or French Sauternes with any blue cheese. It's guaranteed your eyes will roll back in your head from happiness.
Reds can be difficult to pair, since you have to find a cheese that will stand up to the boldness of the wine. But the acidity of chevre goat cheese and the smooth Fol Epi affectionately shimmied up to the French Cabernet.
The surprising winner of the pairing contest was the Spanish Rioja. Chevre goat cheese, Amish Havarti, Maytag blue and English cheddar all soared with this wine. A bit oaky, the Rioja matched the cheeses' earthy qualities.
This may all sound rather wine geeky, but try it. Get some friends together, grab some cheese and a few different varietals of wine, and go at it like hungry wolves. Your tummy will cheer.
1999 Clos du Bois Alexander Valley Reserve Merlot Smooth-as-ice flavor, with cherry oozing out its pores. Slight bit of tannins will compliment a salty, earthy Spanish Manchego or an aged Gouda. A very impressive wine for the money. $25
Chateau de Clarefort 1998 Margaux A Cabernet/Merlot blend from Bordeaux, France. Earthy, tongue-coating fruit that packs a wallop. Not a super-heavy wine, but with just the right balance to suit many cheeses. $20
Rothbury Estate 2001 Chardonnay Wonderfully rich, tropical flavors with smooth acids. Drink this one a bit warm and you'll get the full effects of its cool Aussie flavor. Danish Havarti is its favorite. $10