In the deep of winter, create an evening of fun and warmth by hosting a wine and cheese tasting party for friends and family.
It’s easy to do. Just gather a variety of interesting wines and cheeses, and pair them for tasting. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions — your local grocery, cheese shop, wine merchant and the N.H. Liquor Commission can help with wine and cheese selections and also offer advice on how best to pair them.
Andrea Immer, master sommelier (one of only nine female sommeliers in the world) and wine expert for Starwood Hotels and the former Windows on the World, has a unique concept for helping you select wine — with what she calls the “flavor map.” She says think of what fruit grows where, and you’ll have a fairly good idea of some of the characteristics of the wine grown in the same region.
For instance, apples and stone fruit, like peaches, tend to grow in cooler climates, so Chardonnay from northern California may have some of those flavors. Citrus fruits grow farther south, so Chardonnays from that latitude may have those characteristics.
Grown farthest south are tropical fruits, so wines grown there will have those flavor notes.
When your guests arrive, pour a few ounces of wine in a clear glass and serve it with an ounce or two of cheese. Urge your guests to taste the wine and cheese together, using all their senses. What is the color? Is the Chardonnay straw color or more golden? What does the wine smell like? Fruity? Musky? Try gently swirling it in the glass. This will cause the wine to evaporate and carry other scents to your nose, much like perfume. And remember, tasting is largely smelling.
Finally, take a sip and hold it in your mouth. What do you taste? Certainly alcohol, but maybe fruit, sweetness, pepper, even grass or something like toast that could be the oak from the fermenting barrel. Between pairings, serve plain crusty bread or crackers to clear the palate. The idea is to taste and savor; think of this as an appetizer, not a meal.
Have you wondered why you drink Champagne out of flutes, but a Merlot out of a wide-bowl glass? The choice of glassware is not merely for decoration; the varied shapes can accentuate the scents of different types of wine.
Generally, white wine is served in a tulip-bowl glass. Red wine is served in a large balloon-bowl glass, providing a large surface area for the wine to aerate or breathe.
Perhaps one of the most important characteristics in a wine glass is the bowl size. You want glasses with at least a 12 ounce capacity, which will hold about five ounces of wine and still have plenty of room to swirl and release the flavor.
Wine buckets and decanters are functional and fun. Buckets help keep white wines, Champagne and sparkling wines cold. They can be made from a variety of materials, most commonly silver-plated metal, and should be filled with ice water, which chills the wine faster than plain ice. Other types can be made from clay or terra cotta, which retain cooler temperatures without ice. In a pinch, you can even put some ice water in a large, clean glass vase.
Decanters do the same job as red wine glasses, only on a larger scale. The flavors in red wine are enhanced when oxygen reaches it. Full-bodied red wines also form sediments as part of their aging process, and decanting allows for the separation of clear wine from the deposits. White wines generally are not decanted.
Unfinished bottles of wine can be kept for a few days with a pretty stopper, but a vacuum plug does a better job.
Some of the more delightful wine accoutrements are wine charms — a beaded elastic ring or metal hoop placed around the stem of a wine glass. Available in a array of shapes, colors and themes, they help you keep track of your glass during those hectic holiday dinners.
You might try one of these themes: all white, with Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay; all red, with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; all California Chardonnays, such as Kendall-Jackson, Robert Mondavi and Stag’s Leap Napa Valley; around the world with Merlot — try Merlots from France, Australia and the U.S. You might also want to try wines from New Zealand, Chile and South Africa.
Suggested cheese pairings:
Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling and Denmark’s Finest brand Havarti (a semi-soft, buttery cheese)
Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc Vintners Reserve and Fanny Mason Baby Swiss (a locally made Swiss)
Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon and Saint Andre (a white, creamy French cheese)
For something unusual, try a Port with Stilton cheese, an English blue-veined cheese. NH
“Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier,” by Andrea Immer; Broadway Books (2000)
NH State Liquor & Wine Commission, www.nh.gov/liquor
This article appears in the January 2004 issue of New Hampshire Magazine