The Perfect Pair

A guide for pairing wine or beer with cheese

Story by Sarah Gonzales

Peanut butter and jelly, Lucy and Desi, salt and pepper. Some pairings are inextricably linked and there's a good reason – they just work together!

Winter is the perfect time to explore the famous culinary pairing of cheese and wine (or beer!) by the fire with friends. To help you organize this cozy soiree we've asked the experts to explain the basics and to share their recommendations for pairings that will delight your taste buds.

Tom Laret, sommelier at the Crow's Nest, explains the appeal of why two can be better than one: "The idea is that when you pair the right beverage with the right food they become greater than the sum of their individual parts," he says. "So maybe this food was an 'eight' and this wine was an 'eight' but together they become a '10'." He adds that some experts consider beer and cheese pairings to be superior to wine and cheese pairings. Why? Because "beer has a refreshing quality to it. Cheese can be heavy on the palate, and wine can leave a residual taste where beer is a little cleaner," he states. "The effervescence scrapes the palate clean."

Whether it's beer or wine you prefer, there are enough cheeses to stock even the most ambitious of pairing parties at Fromagio's Artisan Cheese, from buttery burratas to over a dozen bold blues. Helen Howarth opened the shop in south Anchorage because she loved trying new cheeses and wanted to share that experience with others. Tasting is highly encouraged in her shop where "we'll rarely let someone leave with a cheese they haven't tasted first," she says.

Howarth explains that, in general, cheeses should be tasted in order of flavor profile from lightest and freshest to richest and boldest (as with wine or beer tastings). A simple way to structure a cheese plate is to think of it divided into four parts, with one of each type of cheese occupying a quarter of the plate: 1) Young cheeses like fresh goat's milk or "bloomy rinds" like brie; 2) Semi-soft cheeses such as a sheep's milk cheese like manchego; 3) Harder aged cheese like cheddar, mild gouda or a firm cow's milk cheese; 4) Blues like stilton or gorgonzola.

Choose a wine or beer for each cheese category and you're on the way to a match made in heaven: 1) Young cheeses pair well with sparkling or lighter white wine, Kölsch or blonde beer; 2) Semi-soft cheeses are well-accompanied by a heavier white like a Chardonnay or lighter reds such as a Pinot Noir or a rosé, or try a pilsner; 3) Harder aged cheeses go well with richer reds like Merlot and pair nicely with nutty beers like Belgians or brown ales; 4) Blue cheeses are a classical pairing with ports or other sweet, dessert wines, or try a dark porter instead.

There are so many ways to have fun with a pairing party – try three white wines or three lighter beers with cheeses from categories 1 or 2; or try a couple bold cheeses from the Northwest with two of your favorite Oregon reds or hoppier Alaska ales.

Joshua Potter, the wine steward at midtown Anchorage's UnWined, a new boutique specializing in small-production wines, suggests a stand-up cocktail party version of a tasting by arranging "stations" throughout your entertaining space for guests to visit. "Give people a red glass and a white glass and they work their way around the room" visiting cheeses accompanied by an informational card next to an open bottle of complementary wine. Or, he says: "Go regional! Do an Italian station, do a Spanish station, an American station with a Wisconsin blue cheese and a California port."

When engaging in one of the oldest culinary traditions by sipping wine, savoring beer and sampling cheeses – all three handmade by humans for hundreds of years – it's hard to go wrong. By all means try new things, even unlikely flavor combinations. Flavors can marry in wonderfully unexpected ways, and the adventure is part of the fun. (But, when in doubt, don't be afraid to ask your friendly cheese-monger or sommelier for advice.) So have fun, explore and see what suits your tastes, exchange notes with friends and make an evening of it this winter.