Ah, the "holiday season", a time we could rename "wine season" since this seems to be the time of year most people they they should have a gathering and serve wine which can be a bit stressful for those who tend to serve wine at only this time. Last time I wrote about pairing wine and chocolate. This time let's look at the more likely pairing for people, wine and cheese.
When I as growing up in the back woods of Missouri cheese meant one of two things... American cheese or Pepper Jack. That was it. Cheese was something you put on ham or bologna sandwich or on a hamburger. Eating just cheese was pretty much unheard of. My first experience of any other type of cheese was in my freshman year of college when the professor running the lab I was working in brought some smoked Gouda (been a fan ever since).
Cheese, like wine, has a complexity that become more appreciated the more you sample it. Different companies have variations on a theme when they make their cheese, so cheddar from one producer does not mean all cheddar tastes like that one, so once you find a style you enjoy take a note of it. As with the posting on chocolate I'll have to speak in generalities but hopefully you can glean the basic ideas of the pairing I suggest and find what works best for you.
OK, two big broad statements: An Alsatian Gewurztraminer is probably the most "cheese friendly" wine, and hard cheeses are most reliable for pairing with wine (notice I said more reliable, not best).
OK, let's break it down a little more. With over 100 different types of cheeses available to you I will put them into four categories: soft, semi-soft, firm, and hard. When it comes to pairing wine with cheese there are three main things to take into consideration about the cheese:
1. Texture. Soft cheeses tend to coat the mouth more than harder cheeses so you'll want to gravitate toward whites with a higher acidity to cut through that coating.
2. Sweetness/Tartness. Remember the issue with chocolate... sweet chocolate will make a wine that is less sweet seem tart. Generally speaking, off-dry or sweet wines will have a broader compatibility with cheeses than will a dry wine.
3. Flavors. There isn't a "cheese taste" so you have to take into account whether the cheese is ripe, pungent, etc. In general you want to pair a strong cheese with a strong wine (red or white).
When you think about it, these considerations are no different than the considerations for any wine/food pairing, so now lets look at some specifics:
1. Soft Cheeses. Here we're talking about cheeses like Brie and Ricotta who keep their softness by retaining moisture. They often have a more delicate flavor, calling for more delicate wines. For a Brie try a sparking wine or Champagne (or for a little more adventure a nice Pinot Noir which will have the acidity you are looking for). With Ricotta try a Lambrusco or a Sauvignon Blanc. Feta is also a soft cheese but unlike Brie and Ricotta it has a more pungent taste so try an Ouzo or a Beaujolais.
2. Semi-soft. I have to admit I'm a sucker for semi-soft cheeses. Here we get into some of the moldy cheeses like Blue Cheese and Gorgonzola as well as Mozzarella and Gouda. Here you really start to see variations in cheese production so we're going to be really broad with the recommendations. Both Blue Cheese and Gorgonzola would pair well with a sweeter dessert wine, try a Sauternes or a Port with either. If you want a regional match with the Gorgonzola try pairing it with a good Barolo. For Mozzarella give a good Sauvignon Blanc a try while for Gouda a good dry Rose, Gewurztraminer or a Pinot Noir makes a nice pairing (if you want to try something a little different look for a Valpolicella).
3. Firm Cheeses. These cheeses retain little of their moisture in the process and are wrapped and stored from anywhere between two and 18 months, intensifying the flavors. Into this category we get Swiss, Gruyere, Jarlsberg, and Cheddar. Nice safe bets for the first three include Gewurstraminer and Riesling. Jarlsberg's nutty, creamy flavor also goes well with a Chardonnay while Cheddar sneaks over into the reds and can pair nicely with a fruity Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Zinfandel (or if you have a milder cheddar try an oaky Chardonnay).
4. Hard Cheeses. Here we're talking about Parmesan and Romano. These cheeses are salted in brine, and left to mature for 2 to 7 years which accounts for their tangy, salty taste. These robust cheeses require robust wines so look towards Merlots, Cabs, and for a regional pairing go for a nice Chianti.
Well there you have it, my basic pairings. Hopefully you get the idea and can extrapolate for whatever kind of cheese you want to go with your wine. As always, the best way to find out what fits your palate is to experiment.