When you're entertaining, laying out a killer spread is only half the battle. Odds are that you and your friends are gonna want some booze to go with the food, but bringing out a couple bottles of whatever's in the cabinet isn't the best idea – the wrong pairings won't do either the wine or cheese any favors, and can actually make both taste worse.
Thankfully, you don't need to pass the master sommelier exam to pick the right combination.
Essentially, all you need to do is pair flavor intensities together. In general, that means young cheeses pair well with young wines and aged cheese pair well with vintage wines.
As cheese ages, it loses moisture, develops a stronger flavor, and gains a firmer texture. When wine spends extra time in a bottle or cask, it can pick up deeper, nuanced flavors like oak and earthiness. As a complementary pairing, they go well together since the richer and complex wines – especially tannin-heavy reds – can stand up to savory, nutty, intensely flavored aged cheeses.
The opposite holds true, too. Fresh, soft cheeses have more moisture, and a more creamy & mild flavor. Bright and fruity young wines, like crisp whites or sparkling rosé, work well as a complement.
If you want to go with an "opposites attract" kind of pairing, try a salty cheese with a sweet wine. Funky blue, aged gouda, or crumbly Parmigiano can contrast nicely with a bottle that's even slightly sweet – the salt intensifies the perception of sweetness when you go to take a sip.
Or if you just want to pick up a ready-made one-two punch, grab any (or all) of these combinations before you start serving:
Camembert and Champagne
The rich, dense creaminess of the cheese gets gently fizzed off the tongue by the champagne's bubbles and crisp finish.
Ricotta and Riesling
This is a prime example of how a fresh and soft cheese – in this case, ricotta with its mild and sweet flavor and soft, crumbly texture – works nicely with a juicy, younger wine.
Gruyere and Pinot Noir
A block of gruyere that's got a little bit of age on it (say, a few months) will be mostly firm, and rich but not overwhelmingly intense. Pinot will have the fruit and acidity to balance the scale without going overboard.
Blue and Port
A powerfully salty, funky blue cheese needs a heavy-hitting counterpart. Grab a super sweet and strong port to strike the right balance.
Parmigiano and Cabernet Sauvignon
The salty and nutty aspects of an aged hard cheese like Parmigiano are perfect for a tannin-heavy red, since the tannins bind and carry away the protein and fat to freshen your palate.
Now all that's left is the easy part: eating and drinking.