The Wine and Cheese Challenge: Some Sure-Fire Pairings on the Fly

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Next weekend, one of my closest friends is getting married. A few days ago, the couple asked me and another friend who’s a wine professional to organize a wine and cheese pairing for the welcome dinner. Last minute? Yep. Will I be able to taste the pairings beforehand? Nope. Even so, I’m not too worried. I’ve got some solid standbys that I’ve used in the past. Pairing anxiety? Not a chance.

I’ve never tasted the wines that my wine friend chose. There are three. And she’s never tasted my cheeses. Another challenge: I’m picking the cheese when I arrive in California, where the wedding is. Go with the flow I most certainly will. So how’d we go about choosing our matchups?

Luckily, we’ve done this before. We’re going with a few surefire, super safe, and unabashedly delicious pairings. Each one is based loosely on a different principe of wine and cheese pairing, but they’re the standby pairings I always go to.

1. Like With Like: Sauvignon Blanc & Goat Cheese
The first pairing falls under the Like With Like category. Easy: Sauvignon Blanc and goat cheese.

All I had to go on was what my wine friend gave me about the wine. She wrote: “It’s high acid, tropical undertones, lemons and limes, mineral, light to medium, long finish, zesty, mouthwatering, bracing.” Perfect with goat cheese, definitely a safe pick. I’ll probably pick a goat cheese that isn’t too aged, because I don’t want the spiciness that can develop with age to compete with the lightness of the wine. Younger goat cheeses — though not entirely fresh — tend to have a milky, creamy quality, but with a high-acid finish. They taste grassy, bright, and citric. Like with like, indeed.

I’ll look for ashed rinded goat cheeses like St. Maure or Valencay, or Andante Dairy goat cheeses, Haystack Farm’s Haystack Peak, or Humboldt Fog.

2. Opposites Attract: Riesling & Stinky Cheese
The second pairing illustrates the concept that sometimes, Opposites Attract. My wine bud chose a Riesling, which she says is “off dry, with peachy flavors, very aromatic, perfume-y, high acid, finishes dry, limey, lots of “stony” qualities.” Based on the fact that it’s a bit sweet (or “off-dry,” in wine speak), I’m going for something that will offset the sweetness. In other words, “stinky,” in cheese-speak. We’ll see what I find, but I’ll try to source something only mildly on the smelly side. Maybe something like a Taleggio, Meadowcreek Dairy’s Grayson, or Les Freres by Crave Brothers. Riesling plus some stinkiness meld blissfully together, despite their contrasting flavor profiles. It’s like they cancel each other out and become an altogether new entity.

3. Tried and True: Rioja & Cheddar Cheese
Lastly, we’re going with a Tried And True pairing. This combination works so well simply because each element is so great on its own. And paired together each one elevates the other. Everyone has a Tried and True go-to: Triple Creme cheeses and Champagne, or Stilton and Port, or a rich, fatty sheep milk cheese with a rich, fruit-forward red.

Ours that we consistently fall back on has yet to let us down: Rioja — which on its own is a nice category because you can find something a bit more aged without having to spend — and farmhouse cheddar. Adjective-wise, I was given: “cherry, leather, spice, medium body, great acid, traditional producer.” Huh? My safe, surefire, continually crowd-pleasing English-style cheddar always works. This is my go-to, for reds and whites of all styles, my back pocket ammunition. And with a Rioja, it’s pretty perfect.

Stay tuned for next week, when I’ll give the report on which cheeses I chose, what turned out to be the best, and if some unexpected pairings emerged from any mixing and matching.

Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray’s Cheese Shop. Until recently she was a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show. She is currently a freelance food stylist and private chef in New York City.