Book Review: Wine + Cheese Pairing Swatchbook by Max McCalman

updated May 2, 2019
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A swatchbook is precisely the name for one of the cheese world’s newest publications. Max McCalman, maitre fromager of Artisanal Cheese and author of numerous other books on cheese, namely, The Cheese Plate, has compiled years of tastings into the closest thing that the cheese community will have to a Benjamin Moore color book. Flip through, pick your cheese, match your wine, and a rainbow of flavors appears instantly at your disposal.

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The premise of this handheld device is simple: Pick a cheese, read a snippet about its history and flavor profile, and flip to the card’s backside to read about Max’s wine pairing pick. You’ll learn why he thinks the two go well together, and what you can substitute if you can’t source his proposed wine and cheese. In all, there are 50 pairings, but if you consider all of the subs, you walk away with a lot more.

I picked up this swatchbook (hereinafter referred to as a “book,”) as a skeptic, I’ll admit. I find it bold to state that a certain wine (especially a general varietal, as is the case here, rather than a specific producer) goes perfectly with a certain cheese. Tasting and pairing is just about as subjective as it gets, since no two people taste in the same manner. And all this, realize, comes from someone who taught wine and cheese pairing classes for years. Though I’m an ardent practicer of the theory, I’m only a half-believer.

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But the more I flipped through, the more I started feeling like this book has some serious cred. McCalman doesn’t shy away from obscurities, which makes me think that this book might really home in on the specific pairings that have blown him away. It’s dangerous, for example, to say that goat cheese is great with sauvignon blanc, though it’s one of the most relied upon givens in wine and cheese pairings. In reality, though, such a statement is way too general. Instead, you’ll find in the swatch a proposal to match Valencay, a lightly-aged goat from the Loire, with Pouilly-Fume, a sauvignon blanc from the same region. Excellent.

So maybe this is a book for pairing geeks. Nothing wrong with that. But I think novices would find merit within its pages, too, all filled with the kind of quickie CliffsNotes you crave on cheese and wine. And because the contents are a bit esoteric, you’re bound to learn something new. I’d never heard of several of the cheeses (Le Moulis and Roves des Garrigues, for example), and the suggestions for substitutions on the wines were great: exactly the kind of info you want at hand when you go into a wine shop looking for but failing to find something specific.

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Most of the pairings really spoke to me, or were ones that I’ve had and loved, or seemed like they just made sense (Comte with Cotes du Jura, Manchester with Chenin Blanc, Farmhouse Cheddar with Rioja), though a couple made me stop and wonder if maybe the skeptic in me would win out (Nettle Meadow Kunik with Port? Valdeon with Chenin Blanc? Really?).

In all, though, this guide is great, and would make a super excellent present, to whatever range of wine or cheese geekdom your gift givee may be.

Find it at your local bookstore, library, or on Amazon → Max McCalman’s Wine and Cheese Pairing Swatchbook: 50 Pairings to Delight Your Palate

(Images: Nora Singley)