Let me start this post by saying one thing: I love wine, but I’m far from a connoisseur. If you’re anything like me, then you have your go-to varietals at the store, and you know enough to know what you like and don’t like, but you probably don’t have the palate to spout out tasting notes like “hints of tobacco” and “fruity on the nose”.
If that’s the case then I hope you’ll join me on this first of many posts where I’m educating myself – and you – on some wine basics that are going to serve us all well when it comes to enjoying and entertaining with wine! Staring with the most classic wine pairing guide: the cheese board. For this first round of our education, I’ve teamed up with J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines to showcase how to pair with two of their most popular varietals: The J. Lohr Estates Riverstone Chardonnay and the J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon.
I learned early on in my very limited wine education that even a wine I don’t typically love can benefit from the right pairing. So if you’re not a Chardonnay or a Cab fan, I’d like to challenge you to make this board and taste these pairings, and then see where you stand on things!
It’s also important to keep in mind that these bottles are California wines. Knowing the AVA (that’s wine talk for American Viticulture Area) when trying out a new bottle is helpful because it’s entirely possible to discover that you enjoy a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Paso Robles AVA (like this one) as compared to other popular areas of California that you may have tasted (ahem, Napa). This is incredibly helpful when staring down the wine aisle at the grocery store. Hone in not only the varietal you like (Cabernet Sauvignon) but the area or AVA you tend to enjoy more, too.
Ok, back to the pairings!
The basic idea here is to learn a little about the wine you’ve selected (ie, the tasting notes), and then use that to help with the pairings. J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines provided us tasting notes for both wines, and I attached those to the bottles for our little wine pairing party so that people could start to get an idea of what they were sipping! Next I read up a ton on basic wine pairing concepts, down to specifics of what to pair these particular wines with, and came up with a list of ingredients that worked well with these wines. Here’s what I ended up with:
Pairings for Chardonnay: I define Chardonnays as a ‘rich’ white (as opposed to a dry white), which means you want flavors that are subtle, smooth, fatty, or creamy.
- Basil Pesto: a classic spread rich with cheese and oils.
- Almonds: a subtle nut that leans more creamy, especially marcona almonds without the skin!
- Classic Brie: the smooth nature of this cheese balances the wine perfectly. stay away from overly-aged or ‘stinky’ forms of these softer cheeses, and stick with the classic.
- Sesame Crackers: any basic cracker will do, but sesame specifically pairs well with chardonnay.
- Dried Orange: to pick up on the citrus notes in the wine!
- Havarti: very creamy and very buttery, this one proved to be a particular favorite with this chardonnay!
- Prosciutto: a lighter, fatty meat with a subtle flavor is more ideal than a rich, smokey or spicy pairing.
Pairings for Cabernet Sauvignon: Consider this red a more middle-of-the-road varietal. It’s not light, but it’s not overly robust, which makes it enjoyable with many dishes – rich, savory, and subtle nutty or earthy is where you want to take this red.
- Sun Dried Tomato Pesto: the oils tone down the usual sharpness of sun dried tomato. A perfect spread for crackers!
- Walnuts: this dryer, savory nut is complementary to most reds.
- Camembert: a slightly earthy flavor that pairs well with a medium (or light!) body red.
- Aged Gouda: this creamy but nutty cheese will actually accentuate the tannins in a more powerful cabernet (we’ll have to have a lesson on tannins another time, yes?)
- Rosemary Crackers: similar to the reason we chose sesame crackers for the white drinkers, here we love the way herbs pairs with the flavors in the red. black pepper would also work nicely!
- Dried Cherries: back to our trick of using one flavor to enhance the other – the dried cherry here brings out the cherry in the Cabernet.
- Gorgonzola: blue cheese can be tricky with Cabernets, but this milder form is ideal because the flavors skew creamier and nuttier rather than sharp.
The best part of this party was seeing people’s reactions as they slowly tasted their way through the board paired with the wine they were drinking. Most of us are red drinkers, so diving into the J. Lohr Chardonnay was met with some skepticism. The havarti cheese and the orange rind pairings seemed to make the most impact on people’s palate though! And all of us were pleasantly surprised with how much of a difference they made in tasting the wine.
I loved the J. Lohr Cabernet, even on its own, and that’s not typical for me with all Cabs. Bonus points for a wine party like this: not only are you learning a bit about wine, but it creates a fun, natural way to kick up conversation. I think I’m going to keep this pairing party in my back pocket for when bringing new smaller groups of friends together!
I would love to know what you want to learn more about as we continue our wine education around here! Would you like to see selections of affordable wine favorites? Learn more about tasting notes and tannins? How much should we nerd out? I’m excited to bring more wine content to our pages, and dive into this subject more with you!