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Host a Cheese & Wine Party

Few food and drink combinations are as festive, exciting, and romantic as the age old pairing of cheese and wine. When put together, cheese and wine add up to more than just food and drink; they are an experience.

So what better way to enjoy the experience of cheese and wine than to have a party that puts these classics center stage? It's very easy since all you need is cheese, wine, and a few accompaniments. And, because there's no last-minute cooking, you get to enjoy the party from start to finish along with your guests.

Buying Cheese
For some people, the hardest part about entertaining with cheese is figuring out which cheeses to buy. Like buying wine, buying cheese can sometimes be a scary venture. Here's what you do:

• Buy at least one cheese you're familiar with. This could be cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack or all of the above. Buying familiar cheeses will allow you to be relaxed when you serve them.
• Buy one or two fresh cheeses. Fresh cheeses are ones that haven't been aged, such as fresh goat cheese and mozzarella. They're always crowd pleasers and readily available. Be sure to buy the best quality mozzarella you can afford, preferably one that's sold fresh in water. The vacuum-sealed variety is best when used on top of a pizza rather than at a cheese and wine party.
• Buy two similar cheeses made by different producers or made in different styles. If you live in an area where artisan and specialty cheeses are available, then choose two cheddars made by different producers. You'll be amazed at the difference! If not, then simply choose two kinds of cheddar - mild and sharp - and buy them both. Your guests will have fun trying both kinds of cheddars with different wines. You'd be surprised how the same cheese, when made a little differently, will go with entirely different wines.
• Buy aged cheeses. Aged cheeses are ones that are harder and saltier. The most famous aged cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano, and it always makes a great addition to a cheese and wine party. You might also consider an aged asiago or an aged sheep's milk cheese such as Manchego or Pecorino.
• Include at least one blue cheese. Many people put blue cheese at the top of their favorites list. It's especially good with dessert wine. Consider the classic Maytag Blue or a crumbly Gorgonzola. (Don't buy the pre-crumbled variety though. It's not as flavorful nor nearly as creamy).
• Serve one washed rind cheese. Washed rind cheeses are the strongest and most aromatic of all the cheeses. This means that not everyone may embrace them. Still, for those who like stronger cheeses, nothing satisfies like a washed rind cheese. These cheeses are distinguished by their orangish or pinkish rind and are almost always soft and creamy in texture. Examples of washed rind cheeses include Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, Marin French Cheese Company's Schloss, Italian Taleggio, French Epoisses, Reblochon, and Livarot, and Alsatian Munster. When serving washed rind cheeses and blue cheeses, you may want to put them on separate plates. This will keep the stronger cheeses from affecting the flavors of the milder ones.

Buy one ounce of each cheese per person. This means that if you're having eight people and eight cheeses, you will need a half-pound of each cheese.

Buying Wine
When it comes to the wine for a cheese and wine party, you want to have a variety. Here are your best choices:

• Sparkling wine, such as Champagne
• Fruity wine, such as Riesling or Chenin Blanc
• Dry-style white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay (non-oaky)
• Lighter red wines such as Pinot Noir
• Fruity red wine such as Zinfandel or some Pinot Noirs
• Bold red wine such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon
• Dessert wine such as moscato (also called muscat), late-harvest Riesling or sauvignon blanc, or Sauternes
• Six wines may sound like a lot, but remember you don't have to drink every drop. The idea is for your guests to match the cheeses with the different wines in the hope that each person comes up with his or her perfect pair.

Serving Cheese and Wine
Now that you've got your cheeses and wines, here's how you serve them.

• Provide a different knife for each type of cheese. If there is just one knife for all the cheeses, after a few cuts with the same knife they'll all end up tasting alike!
• Arrange the cheeses from mild to strong. If you start tasting the strongest cheeses first, you won't be able to enjoy the subtle flavors in the milder cheeses.
• Always serve cheese at room temperature. The full flavors in cheese don't come through if the cheese is too cold. This means taking the cheeses out of the 'fridge at least one hour and up to three hours before serving.
• Take the white wine out of the refrigerator at least fifteen minutes before serving. Just like cheese, wine needs to warm up a bit to be fully enjoyed.
• Provide a list of the cheeses and wines you're serving to each guest along with pencils or pens. That way they can take notes on what they're eating and drinking and compare those notes with each other. The conversation those notes start are very entertaining!

Cheese and Wine Party Accompaniments
While cheese and wine are great by themselves, you and your guests may wish to have a few accompaniments too. Think about serving the following:

• Fresh fruit slices such as apple, pear, nectarines or plums
• Dried fruit such as dates, prunes, and figs
• Fruit compotes such as fresh cherry or dried fruit
• Fruit chutney
• Toasted plain nuts such as almonds and hazelnuts
• Flavored nuts such as candied walnuts and spiced pecans
• Sweet baguette slices
• Walnut and/or dried fruit bread

And don't forget water. You may want to consider serving both sparkling and still water. Sparkling is a great palate cleanser.

Now that you've got what it takes to have a great cheese and wine party, the only thing left to do is send out the invitations!