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Selecting and Pairing Cheese, Charcuterie & Wine

a wooden table topped with plates of food on a plate

This month, Cheesetique celebrates its 15th year, quite a milestone, especially in the often-fickle food industry. This makes me ponder: what is it about cheese, wine, and charcuterie that keeps us enthralled year after year? And what is it about Cheesetique that keeps people coming back year after year? Simply put, folks love good food, simply prepared, easy to savor, and fun to explore. We love curation, education, and experimentation—eating as we learn and learning as we eat. With cheese and wine, this practice is brought to the forefront, as almost no other foods carry with them the same blend of history, locality, craftsmanship, science, and art. The breadth and diversity of options creates almost endless opportunities to investigate. In this season of “back to school,” let’s take a moment to educate ourselves on the wonders of cheese, wine, and charcuterie, while learning how to best select and pair them.

Simultaneously simple and astoundingly complex, cheese and wine are humble liquids transformed, becoming things that excite, intrigue, elevate, and sustain. Subtle deviations in climate, recipe, technique, or mood can take the finished products in countless different directions and what starts as fresh milk or grape juice becomes something else entirely. The magic is in the transformation, one that is rooted in thousands of years of the human drive to improve, enhance, and embellish what we are given.

Historically, cheese making was born of necessity. The ability for farmers to convert highly-perishable milk into something that could feed their families during winter made the difference between life and death. Wine, though not necessarily as life-dependent, was once a safer alternative to unclean drinking water, which could carry with it illness or death. As modern technology has made natural preservation less necessary, these necessities have become objects of art and sources of local pride, the production and sale of which keeps entire communities alive. 

Not surprisingly, these ancient products of the land grew up together and their common reflections of locality keep them closely united. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the third leg in this tripod of purposeful preservation: charcuterie. Like cheese, cooked or cured meats transform a highly perishable raw material into food that can be kept for months—or even years—without spoiling. In the days before refrigeration, freshly butchered meat would become inedible almost immediately. The brave soul who one ancient day decided to salt, dehydrate, cure, and then eat it, will never be known. But that legacy lives on in the thousands of salamis, pâtés, and hams that are eaten every day around the world. Yes, even beef jerky has these same illustrious roots.

Now that we’ve learned a little about them, it’s time to focus on how to select, serve, and pair cheese, wine, and charcuterie like a pro. Let’s go back to school… in the tastiest way.

Selecting Tip #1: Cheese

Cheese should be cut and eaten the same day. We can’t always achieve this, but we can try. Instead of purchasing cheese that had been pre-cut and wrapped (often days in advance), visit a cheese counter where the cheesemonger slices items to order. Small pieces of cheese, once removed from the larger wheel and wrapped in plastic, will begin to degrade in quality almost immediately. You owe it to yourself—and the cheese—to eat it at its prime.

When selecting multiple cheeses, variety is key. With a little help, you can create the perfect blend of milks, textures, and styles. That way, everyone finds something that they love. So, don’t hesitate to ask lots of questions at the cheese counter.

Selecting Tip #2: Wine

Experiment with alternatives to well-known (and often super-expensive) wines. Sometimes it’s as simple as stepping slightly outside a certified production zone. Other times, hop halfway around the world for the same grape prepared in a similar style. Some will say there’s nothing like the real thing, but these options can get you pretty darn close… at a fraction of the cost. In my world, wine is to be enjoyed freely without asking, “is today really worth opening this bottle?”

Specific recommendations:

Champagne àSpanish Cava (fermented in the bottle just like Champagne, giving it similar characteristics and unique bubbliness) 

Barolo àLange Rosso (a younger version from the same Nebbiolo grape; drinking Lange Rosso from a great Barolo producer is a sure bet)

California Cab àChilean Cabernet Sauvignon (all the richness of the grape, prepared in the same bold, oak-kissed format)

Red Bordeaux àCôtes de Bourg (Bordeaux-made, but more under the radar than higher-profile appellations, and delicious drinking right now)

Selecting Tip #3: Charcuterie

There are three main types of charcuterie: salt-cured whole cuts like ham, cured sausages like salami, and cooked styles like pâté. I tend to think of sliced ham as more “elegant” and sliced salami as more “rustic,” while pâté can fall in either category, depending on preparation. 

Regardless of style, sliced charcuterie oxidizes quickly, resulting in a taste that can be flat at best or funky at worst. if you plan on eating your charcuterie that day, choose items that are freshly sliced for you. If you’re waiting until the next day (or longer), go for an individual salami that you can cut yourself.

Specific Recommendations: 

Day-Of: sliced Jamón Serrano, Beef Bresaola, mousse-style pâté, or large-format salami

Later: country-style pâté or any salami “chub” (refers to the small, individually cured format)

Pairing Tip #1

Select neighboring products and you will never go wrong. There’s no need to grasp the subtleties of the grape, milk, or meat (unless you want to). Remember—wine, cheese, and charcuterie are all products of the earth and in most cases, capture a common culinary spirit that make them natural partners. Let region be your guide.

Specific recommendations: 

Prosciutto di Parma + Parmigiano Reggiano + Barbera

Jamón Serrano + Manchego + La Mancha Tempranillo

Garlic Saucisson + Fresh Chèvre + Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc)

Pairing Tip #2

Match intensity to enjoy complimentary, not clashing, flavors. Enjoying a delicate fresh chèvre? Skip the big red. Instead, choose a bright, acidic Sauvignon Blanc. Serving a hard-aged savory Gouda? Grab a full-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon to stand up to that flavor powerhouse.

Pairing Tip #3

Fat loves acid. When pairing rich foods like cheese and charcuterie, select wine that is high in acid, whether red or white. The acid will help to cleanse your palate, making each new bite taste like the first. Examples of high-acid wines are whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio and reds like Sangiovese and Syrah.

In conclusion, making great selections and pairings is about sticking to a few basic guidelines and asking for help from your friendly local shopkeeper. There are almost no bad choices, so most importantly, RELAX and enjoy the bounty before you, remembering the wise words of famed chef Ferran Andrià: “Just to eat is a gift.”