Spanish Artisan Cheeses & Spanish Wines That Complement Them
Text & Photographs by Gerry Dawes©2008
Spain has become the culinary star of Europe in the past decade, the destination of choice for an ever growing army of chefs, restaurateurs and foodies, who have become increasingly enamored of the country’s top modern restaurants and in the process have the discovered the greatness of Spanish regional cuisine and wines. Less well known, but growing exponentially in popularity are Spanish artisanal cheeses, of which there is a broad array ranging from the spectacular vegetable rennet tortas del Casar and de la Serena (sheeps’ milk) from Extremadura to sublime Monte Enebro (goat’s milk), made by a single producer in Ávila, to Valdeón, one of the world’s great blue cheeses (cow’s and mixed milk).
Torta de la Serena
Experts such as maître fromager Max McCalman, author of The Cheese Table and Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best (Clarkson Potter; August, 2005) and Steve Jenkins, author of The Cheese Primer and cheese maven at New York’s Fairway Market, consider Spanish artisanal quesos some of the finest in the world. In The Cheese Table, McCalman explains that Spanish cheeses display "all the markers of superior cheesemaking: rustic local production; cheeses named after their places of origin; and ancient tradtions upheld by many succeeding generations of farmers, herders, and cheesemakers."
Max McCalman with Cheese Cart at Picholine
Some thirty or more Spanish quesos are being imported into the United States. Excellent examples of Spanish artisan cheeses made from vaca (cows’), oveja (sheeps’) and/or cabra (goats’) milk can be found at the cheese counters of Whole Foods stores and at such shops at Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco’s Ferry Market Building, Central Market in Austin, Texas, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City. Picholine restaurant in New York City began serving a wide variety of cheeses several years ago from a cheese cart. The program, run by Max McCalman, who is a fan of Spanish cheeses, was so successful that it spawned Artisanal Restaurant and Fromagerie, which features a retail cheese shop, and Artisanal Cheese Center (www.artisanalcheese.com) in New York, which has four different micro-climate cheese lockers for continuing the affinage (elevation or proper aging) of cheeses under ideal conditions. Artisanal also offers master classes and cheese classes with wine pairings, including classes on Spanish artisanal cheeses and wines, which have been well attended, attesting to the growing interest in Spanish food and wine in the United States.
Over the past couple of years I have conducted some dozen classes on Spanish cheeses and the wines that go with them in New York and at conference seminars. Following conventional wisdom, pairing Spanish wines and cheeses seems simple, so in my first few classes I tried to make the wine and cheese pairings as regional as possible. However, over the course selecting the wines that might best go with each cheese, I found that few great artisanal cheeses are made in the greatest wine regions of Spain and, conversely, few great cheese areas also produce great wines.
In La Rioja, Spain’s greatest red wine region, only Cameros, a mountainous area in southern Rioja outside the winegrowing areas makes a cheese of note and it does not rank among Spain’s best. In neighboring Navarra, which produces excellent garnacha-based rosados (rosés), some surprising chardonnay-based whites, well-balanced red wines made from tempranillo, garnacha, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, and some stellar moscatel-based dessert wines, there is a good cheese, Roncal, but it comes from high mountain villages in the Pyrenees, where no wine is made. Around the wine regions of Toro, Castilla-La Mancha and Jumilla, there are Zamorano (sheeps’ milk), La Mancha (sheeps’ milk) and Murcia al Vino (goats’ milk cheese whose rind is washed in monastrell-based Jumilla wine), but few top wines come from those regions and there are no other cheeses of note made there either. On the other side of the coin, Asturias (Spain’s "Parque Nacional de Quesos" [National Cheese Park]), whose villages in the Picos de Europa mountains and along the green, rainy Atlantic coastlands make some fifty cheeses, including some of the best in Spain, there is practically no wine made; the drink is cider.
Given the fact that there are relatively few natural regional wine and cheese affinities, I began experimenting with other wine factors such as age, acidity, alcohol levels, dryness, sweetness, etc. in choosing the wines to go with each cheese. First off, the prevailing practice in the past that the best red wines available should be paired with cheeses turns out to be the last thing that should be done with great red wines, since the complexity for which those wines are usually appreciated loses out to the often forceful flavors of many great cheeses. In fact, most people who regularly pair wines with cheeses now realize that many white wines are a better choice with cheeses due to their acidity, fruit and freshness–the palate-refreshing qualities that make them perfect with cheese: the heavenly classic French combination of Sancerre and crottin de Chavignol goat cheese comes to mind. The assertive flavors of many Spanish cheeses, especially those made from goats’ and sheeps’ milk, need the lively qualities of white wines; rosados, of which Spain has some particularly good examples (especially from Navarra, La Rioja and Cigales); and young, fresh, red wines without predominant oak to refresh the palate between bites of cheese.
I also found in teaching classes at Artisanal Cheese Center in New York pairing Spanish wines with Spanish cheeses that such fortified wines as sherry, Montilla and Málaga often made excellent marriages to such geographically far-flung cheeses as the Mediterranean Mahón cows’ milk cheeses from Minorca to the assertive, wonderful Monte Enebro (goats’ milk) from Avila’s high-altitude continental climate to the stunningly good Valdeón (cows’ milk) blue from the Atlantic climate of the mountainous Picos de Europa in León province. Spain’s emerging dessert wine category, which includes many fortified wines, late harvest styles (moscatels from Navarra and Alicante, malvasias from the Canary Islands), the unique sweet moscatel mistelas (fresh grape must whose fermentation is cut short by the addition of alcohol from Valencia and Alicante, and vinos rancios (wines made purposely in oxidative environment) such as the rare Alicante Fondillon proved to be an exceptional match with a wide variety of cheeses.
The cheeses described below are available in the United States and can be purchased in stores or ordered through Internet sites (see box). The wines they are paired with proved successful in a number of tastings over a period of two years.
Quesos de Cabra (Goats’ Milk Cheeses)
A log-shaped, new-artisan cheese made in the Valle del Tiétar* in the mountainous province of Avila, west of Madrid. by only one producer, Rafael Baez with his daughter, Paloma, from pasteurized high-quality goat's milk obtained from goats that graze in the Sierra de Gredos. Sprinkled with penicillin mold spores and then aged in humid conditions, Monte Enebro develops an benign mold that resembles the ash coating of some other goat cheeses. Has a goaty, forest mushroom and raw nut aroma that somewhat resembles that of a blue cheese. A smooth, almost spreadable pasta that is creamy, sharp, acidic, and salty at once with a slightly picante finish. A distinctive and delicious cheese of great character. (*Not to be confused with queso del Tiétar, another goats’ cheese from this area that is made in a distinctly different style.)
Wine Matches: Albariños, txacolis, Ribeira whites, Rueda verdejos, brut nature cava, rosados from Cigales, young Ribera del Duero and Castilla-La Mancha crianza reds, manzanilla sherries.
Ibores, Cáceres province (near Trujillo), Extremadura
Designated as a "Denominación de Origen Protegida" (D.O.P.), a protected designation similar to that of a wine region, Ibores cheese is made from the raw (unpasteurized) milk of registered serrana, verata and retinta goats from the environs of historic Trujillo, hometown of the conquistadores, Francisco Pizarro (conqueror of Peru) and Francisco Orellana (discover of the Amazon). When young (semi-curado) it can be semi-soft, creamy, mild, and delicate with a long nutty finish reminiscent of amontillado sherry. Aged (curado) Ibores con be semi-hard, intensely flavored, lightly acidic, salty and even picante with a long, nutty finish. Rinds can be natural, moldy, oiled or rubbed with pimentón de la Vera (paprika from La Vera, is one of the best paprika-producing regions in the world.) Ibores has medium intensity aromas of goat’s milk, aromatic wild plants, and spices (in the pimenton-rubbed types).
Wine matches: Manzanilla sherries, albariños, Rueda verdejos, brut nature cava, rosados, stout Extremaduran country wines from Tierra de Barros, young Toro wines, some bigger alta expresion wines from Toro and Ribera del Duero.
Murcia al Vino, Murcia
The region of Murcia in southeastern Spain is the birthplace of the Murciano-Granadina cabra, the best milk producing goat breed in the country. Labeled "Denominación de Origen Protegida" (D.O.P.), a protected designation similar to that of a wine region, Murcia al Vino is a cylindrical 2-4 pound cheese with a smooth reddish purple rind that comes from bathing the rind in red wine, often monastrell-based wine from the Jumilla region in Murcia province. Similar to a Manchego cheese (sheeps’ milk) in size and texture, like most goats’ cheeses it has a white paste, a mild aroma with pleasant acidity, saltiness and firm texture.
Wine Matches: Jumilla monastrell-based red wines, Alicante and Valencia syrah-based and bobal-based wines and dry-fermented white moscatels from Alicante.
A Catalan goat's milk cheese only recently revived from extinction by weekend cheesmakers in Garrotxa (Gerona province), it is now made in many other areas of Cataluña, which makes it a style of cheese, not one from a strictly defined geographical area. Garrotxa’s tomme shape and velvety blue-gray mold make it distinctive. The semi-soft to hard inside is mild and elegant, with a hint of nuttiness and a clean, smooth finish.
Wine Matches: cava (Spanish champagne), Codorníu’s Pinot Noir Rosado Brut NV cava, Alella Pansa Blanca white, amontillado sherry and young Catalan cabernet sauvignons and merlots.
Quesos de Oveja (Sheeps’ Milk Cheeses)
Manchego, (Castilla-La Mancha)
Manchego is a firm-to-hard textured sheep's milk cheese from La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote, is the most famous cheese in Spain. The classic taste of manchego is tangy, sharp and richly flavored. Manchego pairs perfectly with membrillo (quince paste) or a variety of young red wines and sherries. Much of Manchego is industrially produced, so choose carefully, specifying artisan Manchego cheeses of which there are a number of very good producers, especially from Cuenca province.
Wine Matches: Fino, amontillado or dry oloroso sherries and Montillas, Rueda verdejo-based white wines, young red wines from La Mancha and big red wines (but not complex, long aging styles) from all around Spain. With membrillo, dessert wines such as the moscatels from Alicante, Valencia and Navarra and the sweet wines of Malaga complement this ubiquitious cheese.
Zamorano, Zamora province, Castilla y León
Zamorano is a firm, flaky texture, assertive, Parmesan-esque, Manchego-like cheese made from the milk of sheep that were until recently raised by semi-nomadic shepherds. All the milk come from registered flocks. The Zamorano and chorizo fondue at Artisanal restaurant has been a hit since the opening. A good Zamorano as the same regal bearing as Beaufort or Parmesan. Pressed, uncooked, and aged a minimum of 100 days. Comes from the province of Zamora, where Toro wines are made and just west of Rueda and Ciglaes in Valladolid province.
Wine Matches: Verdejo-based Rueda Superior, Cigales rosado, the powerful red wines of Toro. Some of the better regional wine-and-cheese matchups.
Roncal's nutty and piquant flavors come from the rich sheeps' milk of the legendary lacha and Aragonesa breed of oveja (sheep) that, depending on the season, graze in the high Pyrenees (summer) or the dessert-like Bardena area (winter) of Navarra, the province that was the setting for Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Roncal, made in one of seven villages in the Valle de Roncal, has a firm, chewy texture. Roncal is similar to a the Pecorino Toscano and also to Manchego, but has its own unique, mouth-watering character. It is a versatile cheese that pairs well with many types of wine.
Wine Matches: Navarra rosados, chardonnays, young red crianza wines and late harvest moscatel, all from Navarra.
Idiazábal, Basque Country & Navarra
From a village south of San Sebastián, Idiazábal is the Basque Country’s most ubiquitous cheese. It is so revered in the Basque Country that few other cheeses are made and all the great Michelin-starred chefs of region take off one day a year to judge the best of them in the market village of Ordizia. Once formed, Idiazábal is often lightly smoked over apple wood for 10 days, which gives it a smokiness than enhances its rich, nutty flavor. The texture of Idiazábal is similar to zamorano, roncal and manchego.
Wine Matches: Txacoli de Getaria, chardonnays and rosados from Navarra, young, fruity red cosechero wines from the Basque Rioja Alavesa, sherries.
Torta del Casar, Cáceres province, Extremadura
A raw sheep's milk cheese from villages near the provincial capital of Cáceres in the Extremadura region of west central Spain. Rustic, delicious, creamy, buttery, hints of dill and thyme, with an assertive, but pleasant finish. Very rich, fairly intense and flavorful cheese that is delightfully creamy and spreadable in the springtime versions. Very similar in style the French vacherin Mont d'Or, except that it not made with cows' milk, Torta del Casar (so named because it is torta-shaped like a Spanish potato omelette, or tortilla) has a somewhat smoky flavor, although it is not smoked cheese. Torta del Casar can be semi-soft and sliced or ripened to the point at which a large round lid-like hole can be cut in the top, so that delicious cheese can be scooped out with a spoon or piece of crusty country bread. Made in areas not far from the Portuguese border, Torta del Casar and its cousin cheese, Torta de la Serena, use only wild milk thistle rennet to coagulate the milk, which is an ancient Moorish and Jewish dietary custom. Max McCalman calls it "a mind-bogglingly delicious cheese, certainly one of Spain's greatest alimentary artifacts and among the best cheeses in the world."
Wine Matches: (See Torta de la Serena, below)
Torta de la Serena, Badajoz province, Extremadura
With much the same characteristics as Torta del Cásar, this exceptional, expensive cheese is often preferred over its better known cousin. In springtime and early summer versions, de la Serena is creamy, buttery, and spreadable like Brie, but with infinitely more intriguing, haunting, rustic flavors. One of the best cheeses in the world.
Wine Matches: For both these two stellar cheeses, a good palate-refreshing white from Galicia such as Albariño, godello-based whites from Valdeorras or Ribera Sacra or Ribeiro are good counterpoints. Rosados from Cigales, La Rioja and Navarra are also good, but these cheeses are also complemented by chilled fino and manzanilla sherries and cellar-temperature dry amontillados and olorosos, as well as a Fondillón from Alicante.
Queso de Vaca (Cows’ & Mixed Milk Cheeses)
The word "tetilla" (meaning nipple) comes from the traditional shape of this cheese, which is shaped like a woman’s breast with a small nipple on the top. The most characteristic cheese of Galicia (but also produced in the Asturias), Tetilla is easily recognized by its shape and smooth, yellow-ivory colored rind. The paste is soft, thick and smooth with few air pockets. The flavor is clean and buttery and the texture is smooth and very creamy.
Wine Matches: This lovely cheeses marries well with just about any wine you might want to put with it, maybe the perfect foil among Spanish cheeses. If you like cheese with your best red wines, this is the one to try them with: great Rioja gran reservas, Vega Sicilia and the best wines of the Ribera del Duero, Torres Gran Coronas Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. Also excellent with Galician white wines--Albariño, Ribiero, Godello from Valdeorras–and the mencia-based reds of Ribiera Sacra and Bierzo.
Mahón (Minorca, Islas Baleares)
Mahón is the capital and port of Minorca, the most northerly of the Mediterranean Balearic Islands. This rocky island has a mild climate with plenty of rainfall. The high humidity from sea breezes, which help irrigate the pastures, aids in giving the milk good acidity and imparts hints of saltiness to the cheese. Mahón, the origin of the word mayonnaise, one of the world’s great sauces, also gives its name to cow's milk cheeses produced on the island. Originally made from the milk of cow’s exported from England during the British occupation of Minorca, there are many varieties of this cheese, ranging from semi-cured to well aged (Mahón cheeses were made to withstand long-term storage and transportation by sea). The rind is either rubbed with oil or paprika and the cheese pasta is compact and crumbly. Aged versions can be reminiscent of cheddar. Mahón is Spain’s second most popular cheese after Manchego.
Wine Matches: Big new-wave Mallorca red wines, Priorat and Montsant wines from the Catalan mainland. Also good with a wide variety of sherries, other fortified wines and dessert wines.
Afuega'l Pitu, Asturias (Spain's National Park of Cheeses)
Called 'fire in the throat' in Asturian dialect, this creamy, but sometimes granular cheese, is not necessarily fiery, but it is a gamey, rustic cheese, whose piquancy comes from Spanish pimentón, the best paprika in the world. Afuega'l Pitu is not yet well-known, but it has a small, but loyal following among cheese aficionados, who can't have enough of it. The texture is similar to that of a young goats' milk cheese.
Wine matches: Because of its lightly picante finish, this cheese needs refreshing white wines such as Txacoli, Ribeiro, Albariño, Alella, cava or rosados from La Rioja and Navarra. A young unoaked Bierzo red works well, too. Asturian or Basque cider is also a great match.
Beyos (cows', goats’, mixed milk), Asturias
This dense, compact, "peasant" style artisan cows' milk cheese from the Picos de Europa mountains has a unique flinty texture and flavor. The cows here graze on grass that grows in the chalk-laced soil of the Sella river valley. The texture of this cheese, which breaks away in shards, is reminiscent of white chocolate. The firmness at first bite melts into a buttery, creamy, chalky paste with a long balanced tangy finish. It is a cider or wine cheese par excellence. Made by just a few producers, versions of Beyos are also made with goats’ milk and mixed cows’ and goats’ milk.
Wine Matches: Spanish cider, Txacoli from Vizcaya, Galician white wines, young mencia-based red wines from Bierzo, Rioja and Ribera del Duero Reservas with good acid.
Quesos Azules (Blue Cheeses), Asturias & León
(Wine matches are generally the same for these blue cheeses, see below for all three.)
Cabrales is a semi-soft blue cheese with a strong, spicy, pronounced flavor. Traditionally, it is made with a mixture of cows’, sheeps’ and goats’ milk, but now it is most often made with raw cows' milk. The three-milk version is a truly exceptional cheese, made smoother by the sheeps' milk component and more piquant by the goats' milk.
Made from raw cows' milk with some with goats' or sheeps' mixed, Gamonedo is one of the few remaining naturally bluing blues, but its most memorable characteristic is the flavor that comes from being gently smoked over apple wood for 10 - 12 days. It has a creamy, but powerfully pungent flavor.
An Artisan Gamonedo producer
From northeastern León province in the valley of Valdeón in the Picos de Europa mountains, this wonderful cheese is one of the great blues of Europe. Made principally with very fine cows' milk that is sometimes laced with a bit of sheeps' and/or goats' milk, Valdeón is a wonderfully smooth and creamy cheese that has all the character of a blue without its more aggressive traits.
Wine matches: These three cheeses offer the perfect opportunity to show off great sherries, including some of the sweet olorosos and creams, Montilla Pedro Ximénez, Málaga and Alicante moscatels, Canary Islands malvasias, Fondillóns and late harvest garnachas from Cataluña. Young, fresh whites, cava and rosados also offer a good counterpoint to the richness and pungency of these cheeses.
Sherry, Montilla and Malvasia (from the Canary Islands).
Sources of Spanish Cheeses (USA only):
Artisanal Cheese Center, New York City (http://www.artisanalcheese.com%29/)
Despaña Brands, Jackson Heights, NY (http://www.despanabrandfoods.com%29/)
Di Bruno Bros., Philadelphia (http://www.dibruno.com%29/)
Fairway Market, New York (http://www.fairwaymarket.com%29/)
Forever Cheese, Whitestone, New York (http://www.forevercheese.com%29/)
Murray’s Cheese, New York City (http://www.murrayscheese.com%29/)
The Spanish Table, Seattle, Santa Fe, Berkeley, Marin County (http://www.spanishtable.com%29/) La Tienda, Williamsburg, VA (http://www.tienda.com%29/)
Whole Foods (More than 150 stores in the US & UK), (http://www.wholefoods.com%29/)
Zingerman’s, Ann Arbor, Michigan (http://www.zingermans.com%29/)