Knowing the best cheeses to pair with wines has always been a mystery to me. With all the cheeses now available in Chattanooga markets these days, it hasn't gotten any easier. And there are many more wine choices beyond cabernet and chardonnay.
So I recently attended a class at Barnsley Resort in Adairsville, Georgia, meant to set all of us xenophiles from around the mid-South in attendance on a course to get this whole thing figured out.
Sommelier Heath Porter, owner of Heathen Wine Tours, was charged with teaching us some of what he's learned along the way. The cheeses were provided by Sweet Grass Dairy out of Thomasville, Georgia.
"Wine and cheese are two of my favorite things alive," he told us.
There are several things to take into consideration for pairings, but in his opinion, the texture of the cheese is the first thing to think about when selecting the right cheese.
"Cheese can be light-, medium- or full-bodied. And it can also be soft, hard or runny," he said. "So, to me, finding a light wine with fresh goat cheese or a fuller-bodied wine with triple-cream brie makes more sense. Just like dealing with cuts of meat or fish when pairing wines, texture and weight play a huge role."
Spring is a time for party season to begin, and wine-and-cheese parties are a wonderful way to entertain. So how to pick?
Porter suggests picking out no more than four cheeses, such as a creamy brie or Camembert, or a fresh, acidic cheese such as Chevre goat cheese from France — both are wonderful with a fresh white wine. Hard cheeses like Manchego or an aged parmesan are beautiful with a good cabernet or other dry red wine.
"Not everyone likes bleu cheese, but the saltiness with a slightly sweet wine is one of the culinary world's great gifts," he said. "The key is to have a few different cheeses to choose from and assemble some solid accoutrements, like nuts with skin, a couple of sweet jams or jellies, something pickled, good bread and crackers, some fresh fruit and honey. These are the ingredients that truly lift a great cheese-and-wine pairing in my thought process."
And you don't have to shop at the fanciest of cheese markets to find good cheeses. Porter recalled a recent wine-and-cheese party he attended that was hosted by a woman who admittedly knew nothing about the cheeses she'd purchased from Publix.
"She had Brillat-Savarin, gorgonzola, aged Manchego and Humboldt Fog from California with some local honey, nuts and fig spread," Porter said. "I thought it was perfect."
Porter will be back at Barnsley April 22-23. The weekend includes a wine tasting the night of April 22, featuring vintages from Melville Winery from the hills north of Santa Barbara, California. The following day, guests can enjoy a kettle-cooking demonstration on the lawn, followed that night by a special dinner at the resort's premiere restaurant, The Rice House, under the direction of the resort's new executive chef, Javier Cuesta. Dinner will feature courses paired with more wines from Melville Winery.
Here are some more events scheduled at Barnsley for foodies this year:
— May 8: Treat Mom to a memorable Mother's Day brunch in Georgian Hall.
— July 3-4: The resort will honor America's birthday with Barbecue, Boil & Brews the first night and an all-American cookout followed by fireworks on the Fourth.
— Oct. 28-29: The popular Swine & Wine weekend returns in 2022, starting with a wine tasting and ending with the amazing Swine & Wine Barbecue.
— Dec. 3: The Rice House Supper Club Series will feature select entrees paired with wines from California's Blue Rock Vineyards.
SPEAKING OF CHEESE
National Grilled Cheese Day is Tuesday, April 12. To mark the day, Luke Zahm, a James Beard Award-nominated chef and owner of Driftless Cafe in the cheese state of Wisconsin, offers his tips on making the best-ever grilled cheese sandwich.
— Toast your grilled cheese in butter — no mayo, no ghee. "However, I begin the melting process by adding the cheese to the griddle on its own, then adding the buttered bread, then adding the cheese that's melted to the toasted bread," Zahm says. "It allows that beautiful cheese to melt into that gooey molten deliciousness of culinary excellence."
— Vary up the cheese styles to create contrast in melting points and flavor. Try pepper Jack to add some subtle spice to your sandwich.
— Use jelly or jam to accent the richness of flavor. And get funky with it and use a jalapeño jelly, apple butter or even sliced grapes on your sandwich. "It's the bomb!" he says. "It allows for some of the complexity of the cheese to shine through by counterpointing with acid and sugar."