First things first: sparkling wine is not just for New Year's Eve. But New Year's is just around the corner, and of course you'll be drinking sparkling wine, so now's a good time to talk about pairing cheese with it. At my New Year's parties, I have a whole menu driven by bubbly with different stations, each offering its own pairing.
Conventional wisdom says that sparkling wine (ideally Champagne, but equally so Cava, Cremant, or Prosecco for the more budget-minded) should be paired with triple crème cheeses. These Brie cousins are cream-enriched and lovingly likened to whipped butter that you're entitled to eat with your fingers. The idea here is that especially fatty and generally salty cheese is cut by the wine's effervescence, essentially scrubbing your palate clean for more cheese.
But all triple crèmes are not created equal. Different rinds make for different flavors of cheese, which lets us find just the right kind for different sparkling wines.
The most traditional triple crèmes have a rind made of the mold penicilium candidum, the mold responsible for the pristine fluffy white skin made famous by Brie. French stalwarts like St. Andre, Brillat Savarin, and Pierre Robert, or new American classics like Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam and Marin French Triple Crème Brie are all examples. Their texture tends to be silken and airy, dissolving instantaneously on the tongue. Flavorwise, it's all about cream and salt with, perhaps, an edge of white button mushroom. These are easy cheeses to like, and Prosecco's coarser bubble and fruit-forwardness are companionable. Though the wine is available is varying levels of sweetness, dry is best here.
Then there are the triple crèmes that are a bit more wrinkly, their rinds more yellow. Texturally they resemble a just-this-side-of-too-wet cheesecake. The flavors are more acidic, leaving your mouth watering, but reminding you of yeast and nuts. These cheeses are made with the yeast geotrichum; they're messier than their bright white brothers, and arguably more complex. The French versions tend to come from Burgundy, as in Delice de Bourgogne. Vermont Creamery's Cremont, while technically a double crème, is a fantastic American alternative. French cremants—sparkling wines from outside the AOC Champagne region that are made in the traditional Champagne method—can offer fantastic value and excellent quality. The rosé Cremant d'Alsace offers fresh red fruit and creamy bubbles that offset the cheese's earthy finish.
My consistently favorite pairing with Champagne falls far from the butterbombs. It's a glorious illustration of pairing similar flavors in an effort to amplify their similarities. The aged mountain cheeses of France and Switzerland, with their dense-yet-elastic pastes and flavors of brown butter and roasted hazelnuts, are happy bedfellows with the perfectly golden toastiness of good Champagne. The wine's relentless yet finely delicate bubble manages to respect the cheese's texture while loosening and lightening it in the mouth. Comte tends to be sweeter and "Swissier," Gruyere nuttier, Appenzeller or Challerhocker spicier. Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve or Nature's Harmony Fortsonia preserve these qualities in the new world.
Lambrusco, a mildly sparkling red wine, hails from the same region as Parmigiano Reggiano, and the classic pairing is an instructive model for what to do with Parm-like cheeses. Dense and waxy with intermittent crunch from protein crystals, Parm is actually quite acidic. It's not butterscotchy and candied the way aged Goudas can be, and that mouthwatery edge is necessary to keep sometimes lightly-sweet Lambrusco from coming off like Manischewitz. Other choices that work well are Grana Padano, Piave, or the delicious Sardinian mixed-milk Podda Classico. A big, broad bubble mines the paste, and the pairing is reminiscent (in the best way) of peanut butter and jelly.
With Moscato d'Asti
Moscato d'Asti makes for a sweet, crowd-pleasing wine, and it takes well to any of the world's great rinded blues. Try French Fourme d'Ambert, English Stilton (or better, the raw milk Stichelton), or Jasper Hill Farm's Bayley Hazen Blue (recently awarded the "Best Raw Milk Cheese in the World" honor), or a mellower foil-wrapped choice like Point Reyes Bay Blue. (The more peppery blues like Spanish Cabrales mow the wine over.)
That wine is the frilly, peachy Moscato d'Asti which, alongside fudgey blues with earthen edge, plays the role that dripping autumn pears might otherwise hold. That it's semisweet is helpful too, that succulent sugar offsetting blue's elevated salinity.