Wine and cheese tasting parties are a great way to bring people together. The cheese and accompaniments are easily snacked on, and the wine helps conversation flow. If you’re careful about your selection and pairings, even your guests that have nothing in common will be able to agree on your excellent taste. Just remember that as the host it is on YOU to decide the pairings. They need to be well-organized; Never make guests discover proper pairings on a trial and error basis. Some combinations are pleasing while others are not. Guests should not feel baffled about their options and selections. You want to make it effortless for your guests to discover delicious combinations that intrigue, challenge, and inspire conversation.
There is a lot of advice in this article, but first and foremost it is important to know your guests and what they like. If you and your friends will have more fun with something informal and off-the-cuff, then don’t worry about making fancy cheese labels. But if you do want to up your game and create an unforgettable party with stellar pairings and spot-on ambiance, then we have you covered. Read on!
Plan on buying 3-4 oz of cheese per guest. Remember to err on the side of too much rather than too little. If you’re looking for more variety without breaking the bank, then try visiting a specialty grocery store with a cheese counter. The cheesemongers who run the counter will be happy to cut you smaller pieces of cheese than what may be on display. Also ask about an “odds and ends” selection: When the cheesemongers cut cheese into slices, they will often be left with small pieces as trimmings. These are often sold at a steep discount. It’s a great way to increase the variety of your offering without going broke. You will also be able to taste cheeses at the counter! Be sure to do this so you know the flavor of the cheese you're buying.
When planning which cheeses to serve, remember to include a wide variety of flavors. If you decide to include a sharp Cheddar or Dubliner, include milder cheese as well, like a goat cheese or brie. Mix up the types of milk used to create the cheese - buffalo, goat, sheep, and cow cheeses all bring unique flavor profiles to the board. Varry the cheese in density, region of origin, and method of production. You want to make sure that you have a cheese for every person’s taste, and a wine that can pair well with it.
Most cheeses should be served at room temperature with the exception of fresh cheeses which should remain cold. Remove all but the fresh cheeses (the soft and spreadable ones) about an hour before the party so they may achieve the correct temperature. This will allow the aromatic flavors of the cheese to shine. In this way, cheese is not unlike the wine it’s paired with - scent is important. It affects the taste, and subsequently the wine pairings. Be sure to serve the cheese as one whole piece rather than cubing or slicing it. This helps the arrangement look more elegant, and prevents confusion later in the party when it becomes harder to tell which cheese is which on a half-eaten platter full of small pieces.
Serve the cheeses with a variety of salted and unsalted crackers and breads. Unsalted crackers and a mild bread should be served with salty cheeses. Nuts such as walnuts and almonds are also a good addition. Besides the wine, cheese and bread, it’s nice to have some other foods to pair with the cheese. Salty cheeses shine when served with something sweet - try honey, jam, preserves, candied nuts, or fresh fruit. For cheeses with a more savory taste, consider some charcuterie, mustard, olives, or pickles.
Avoid overpowering flavors and smells - you want the cheese and wine to be the stars. These accompaniments are there to add variety and compliment the cheeses. For example, buy regular roasted almonds and not sriracha-lime almonds coated with flavoring powder.
You want your guests to feel like they have the information they need to select tasty combinations. To this end, label each cheese clearly, and describe its flavor in one or two words - Ex: “French Camembert - Mild, soft”. Don’t place the label on a toothpick and place it in the cheese - the labels will be lost as the cheese is consumed. Place them next to the cheese. Or, if you use slate cheese boards, you can write on those with chalk which is handy when serving a variety of cheeses.
Set out serving utensils for each cheese. You may want to invest in a cheese knife set, which includes cutting knives for hard cheeses and spreading knives for softer ones. This will make it as easy as possible for your guests to serve themselves. If you don’t want to spring for these, try using a combination of small paring knives and butter knives - whatever you have available so multiple guests can serve themselves at the same time.
After planning the board, choose the appropriate wines to pair with each cheese using the guide below. Once the wine list has been made, there is the option of asking each guest to bring a specific wine to the party.
The white wines must be properly chilled. A wine chiller will bring a bottle to the proper temperature in a minute. Tabletop wine coolers will bring the wine to the proper temperature in five minutes. Serve white wine at 45°F and red wine at room temperature.
There should be plenty of fresh glasses available so that guests aren’t mixing their wines. Small plastic glasses are one option. The other option, if the party is taking place in the kitchen, is to suggest guests rinse their glasses in the sink. Leave several suitable dish towels on the counter. You could also encourage guests to bring their own glasses from home to share at the party. Ideally, every guest will have one glass for red, one for white, and one for water to act as a palate cleanser.
These are the creamy, decadent, aromatic cheeses with a soft rind that hail from france. This category includes Brie, Camembert, Taleggio, and all their creamy variants. These cheeses tend to have a milky, lactic, or buttery flavor on the inside. Meanwhile the rind contributes an earthy, pungent, almost mushroom flavor. This is from the yeast and mold which makes up the living rind. For food pairings, consider a simple unsalted cracker or slices of baguette. You want something thick that can hold of to all that cream and fat and still remain neutral. Fresh fruits, honey, and preserves go great with these cheeses. Try fresh figs, apples, pears, or grapes.
If you think one brie is pretty much the same as another, think again! Even the difference between double and triple cream brie is very noticeable. Within this one category of cheeses you can get a wide variety of flavors. However, they do share some important characteristics - the creamy, soft center, and the earthy rind. To best compliment these flavors pick a Chardonnay, a Champagne, or a Sparkling White Wine. These light whites will allow the creaminess of the bloomy cheese to come out and provide a counterpoint to the earthy rind.
Fresh cheeses are mild and fluffy. The include mascarpone, feta, handmade mozzarella, and ricotta cheeses. Some of these, like the ricotta and feta, might need to be placed in a bowl rather than on a cheese board. Watermelon is a nice fruit to pair with feta. It can be cubed and served with toothpicks. Peaches are a nice complement to mozzarella. Strawberries and ricotta are a wonderful combination. Both crackers and bread work well with this group. These mild, fresh flavors do well with an assertive white wine.
Unlike many other types of cheese, fresh cheeses have no mold, fermentation, or other preservatives to allow them to age well. Consequentially they are eaten soon after they’re ready. This also means that the subtler, bitter flavors of mold or a fresh rind are totally absent. These cheeses tend to be sweet, light, and salty. To challenge that fresh, sweet flavor we recommend a white wine with some acidity.
These cheeses are often salty, pungent and tinged with blue. They include Gorgonzola and blue cheese. Both types of these cheeses are available in countless varieties. Blackberries and figs are complimentary fruits to serve along with these cheeses. Sweet oat crackers work well with these strong flavors. In general, you want to cut these strong, sharp cheeses with mild, sweet flavors. Because these cheeses have such an intense taste, don’t be afraid to serve them alongside something equally bold, like a sweet jam or compote.
The sharp, aromatic blue cheeses should be paired with a light, crisp, sweet wine that won’t try to compete for attention on the palate. A mellow riesling, Chianti, or even a small amount of port wine will pair beautifully. Sharper blue cheeses should be paired with sweeter wines. The temperature of the wines in this pairing is critical also. Make sure white wines are chilled prior to serving.
These cheeses are, as the name implies, hard or semi-hard. They should be placed on a cheese board along with a sharp cheese knife or two. This group often tastes sharp, salty, or both. Well-aged cheeses are more flavorful. An aged cheddar can have a very intense sharpness. Tart green apples work well with these cheeses. Unsalted crackers are a good choice for this group. However, many people will be happy to eat swiss and cheddar without bread or a cracker. These are very flavorful cheeses that have a lot of complexity even by themselves.
These sorts of sharp, aged cheddars and dubliners need a strong wine flavor to stand up to them. Usually a robust red wine is the way to go. A Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir will mellow out the sharpness of even a very old dubliner.
A party is more than just the food and drinks. Consider how to make your guests comfortable in your home. Ensure that they have everything the need to focus on the food, drinks, and conversation.
Everyone should have their own plate and utensils (this may just include a small knife, unless you’re serving more complicated accompaniments). Everyone will need a napkin also. Consider real cloth napkins to cut down on garbage and elevate the feel of the party.
One common issue during these parties is that people lose track of their glass! Consider purchasing some stem labels so its never ambiguous which glass belongs to which guest.
To guide your guests to good pairings, make a list of suggested pairings and prominently display them. Small picture frames are perfect for holding the written suggestions. They are elegant and easily readable. Suggest guests taste each cheese on its own and then try it with one of the appropriate wine.
Consider the seating, lighting, and ambiance of the room. If you can, alter the lighting to feature the food, as it’s the centerpiece of this gathering. Situate seating around the food so its the center of conversation and focus. Make sure the lighting isn’t too harsh - maybe an 80% dim - so guests can still get around and read your cheese labels. You also don’t want perfect silence - Throw together a playlist of pleasant yet ignorable music to serve as a backdrop to the conversation.
The one thing you don’t want is to not have enough food. This also means that it’s easy to have leftovers at the end of the night. Good! You left them wanting more. Of course you could keep the leftovers to yourself, but your guests may enjoy being sent home with some of their favorite cheeses and snacks of the night. Buying a few disposable tupperware containers will make it easy for your guests to leave with a cheesy party favor. If you have post-its around, write the details of the cheese down and post it on their container so they know how to get more of their favorite cheese.
Once everyone is gone, commend yourself for throwing such an awesome party. Note what your guests said about the pairings and the food, and use this to throw an even more amazing party in the future!