I love parties. What’s not to love? Food, drinks, friends, fun. All my favorite words in one concept! The problem with going to parties is that eventually there is an unspoken agreement that you will reciprocate for all the free food and charming atmosphere you have enjoyed in the homes of your friends. So, unless you want to be labelled as the slacker in your friendship circle, you have to muster up the energy and/or money to clean your house, prepare food, and entertain your friends (and acquaintances, if you’re an overachiever).
While I do enjoy planning an elaborate menu for a sit-down dinner or, at the other extreme, going super casual with a barbecue or taco bar, my go-to party theme is wine and cheese. The beauty of the wine and cheese pairing party is that it has an air of elegance without requiring all the work of conjuring up a gourmet meal. As an added bonus, unless you are in college or have a bunch of lactose-intolerant friends, wine and cheese is a surefire crowd-pleaser.
If you haven’t hosted a wine and cheese pairing party before, you might be overwhelmed by all the choices. To help, I’m sharing my limited knowledge and lots of tips to make all that decision-making a little easier.
What types of cheese should I serve?
First, you will want a variety of TYPES of cheeses. The five major cheese categories are: soft, semi-soft, hard, blue, and fresh. Yes, taken together, one could construct a fairly naughty sentence out of those category names (I blame my husband for fostering my “ability” to do so), but they’re really not as naughty as they sound.
Soft cheeses are creamy with a soft rind and mild flavor. Examples are camembert and brie.
Semi-soft cheeses are firmer, have no rind, but still have a mild flavor. They also melt very well. Examples are Monterey jack and havarti.
Firm cheeses are stiff and often salty (stop laughing!). Most cheeses fall into this category. Examples are gouda, cheddar, parmesan, pecorino, Gruyère, swiss, and fontina.
Blue cheeses are also quite salty, very pungent, and (shocker!) have a blue tinge to them. Examples are blue (didn’t expect that, did you?), gorgonzola, and Stilton.
Fresh cheeses are soft and some are spreadable. Examples are ricotta, mozzarella, goat, and feta.
Second, although you want a variety, you don’t want an overwhelming number of cheeses. For any crowd, 4-6 cheeses should be enough. One from each category is sufficient. If you don’t want to serve a cheese from each category, but would still like a large sampling, you can include 2 firm cheeses since within this category there is such a wide array of flavor and color.
Don’t forget to label your cheeses. You can do this a number of ways:
- Glue a small rectangle of card stock to a toothpick. Write the name of the cheese on the paper and stick the toothpick into the cheese.
- Print the cheese names on medium-sized squares of card stock that you fold into tents that you place next to each cheese.
- Invest in porcelain cheese markers and use them to label each cheese.
- Purchase a slate cheese board so you can write the cheese names directly on the board.
How much cheese and wine should I serve?
Estimate 1-2 ounces of each type of cheese per person.
You will get 5 glasses out of wine out of an average bottle (750 ml), so expect to have enough bottles of each type of wine so that each of your guests can enjoy one full sample of each wine. So, if you are having 10 guests and serving 3 types of wine, you’d need two bottles of each wine.
What else should I serve?
In addition to the cheese and wine, you will need a few other accompaniments to round out your spread. Thankfully, most of the things that go well with wine and cheese require little to no preparation.
- Have a variety of crackers and or baguette slices
- Fruit is a great side item for wine and cheese, especially grapes, strawberries and dried fruit (e.g. dried nectarines, figs). Fresh pears and apples also go well with cheese, if you are willing to put forth the small effort required to slice and soak them.
- Chutney goes well with pungent cheeses and requires nothing more from you than taking off the lid
- Chocolate is a nice contrast to the savory cheeses and pairs exceptionally well with certain wines. It also saves you the trouble of preparing a dessert.
- Nuts offer a different texture and will give your guests something to nibble on throughout the night. Walnuts go well with many wines and are a safe choice. Save your honey roasted peanuts for your bunko night or Superbowl party though. For your wine and cheese get-together, stick with salty or plain.
- Olives pair well with many wines and certain cheeses. Like nuts, they can also serve as easy nibble food.
- Be sure to have some other beverages available so that your guests aren’t all suffering hangovers the next day. Definitely provide plenty of water. If you want broader variety, also offer iced tea, lemonade, and/or a few types of soda. Some of your guests may appreciate coffee service as well to counteract the sleep-inducing effects of alcohol.
How do I pair the wine and food?
One of the problems you will run into when you try to figure out which wines to serve with the cheeses you have chosen. If you delve any deeper than going with the first pairing chart that pops up in your search engine, you will find that for every 10 sources you consult, you will get 10 different suggestions. In my effort to save you that aggravation (having already suffered through it myself), I sifted through dozens of books and websites to put together the following chart.
My rule of thumb was that if I could find several sources that made the same recommendation for a pairing, that was the pairing I trusted. If you are a wine connoisseur, you will be frustrated with my failure to specify wines by age and region. Kudos to you for reading this far into an article that was clearly lacking. For the rest of you, this should be good enough. You can always start your party by having everyone take a shot of some really good liquor so that they’re too tipsy to notice you didn’t consult a wine expert when buying your wine at the local grocery store.
Pinot Noir or Champagne
Cabernet Sauvignon or Chenin Blanc
apple, pears, multigrain crackers
Bordeaux or Burgundy
apples, pears, grapes, dried figs
apples, dark bread
Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot
Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc
olives, baguette slices
Chianti or Chardonnay
bread, dried figs, melon, pears
Bordeaux or Burgundy
fresh dates, dried fruit, walnuts
Depending on whether or not you want to put on your try-hard pants, you can kick up the impression factor party with a few optional additions.
- Provide wine tasting glasses that your guests are able to keep as souvenirs. To do this on the cheap, pick some up at Marshall’s or Ross. If price is no concern, really up the ante and get personalized wine glasses.
- Provide a way for your guests to record their experience. The inexpensive option is to give each guests tasting cards like these from The Borrowed Abode. Or, for a little more, you can give actual wine journals so your guests can continue to track their favorite wines over the years and always be reminded of you. Don’t forget to include an inscription inside the cover of each journal to make sure they remember it was you.
I hope you’ve found some helpful tips and inspiration! If you end up throwing a wine and cheese pairing party, please come back and let me know how it went!