Cheese 101, part I: How to know what you're buying

cheese-plateRaymond Hook, cheese consultant in New York City, wrote this two-part guide to provide the basics needed to navigate, store and enjoy cheese with wine. They are basic definitions and rules of thumb, and as with all rules, there will be exceptions but the simple goal is to help you pick a delicious cheese you’ll enjoy and what wines will complement its goodness.

The Cheese Types:

Fresh
… is just that, fresh. These cheeses are intended to be eaten as soon as possible, as close to the date as they were made. Ricotta is an example. It can be made from cow, goat or sheep milk — the one made from cows is traditionally sweeter and the sheep version tends to be more savory. Best wine pairings are crispy whites with little or no wood aging.

Another fresh cheese is fresh goat cheese, or Chèvre in French. Fresh goat cheese expresses minerality and pasture flavors and has a soft and creamy mouthfeel. Wines should be Loire Valley whites or sauvignon blancs made in a similar fashion.

Pulled curd
Mozzarella represents the most well-known pulled curd cheese, appearing on pizza throughout the world. Traditionally made from the milk of water buffalos, it’s now predominantly made with cow’s milk. Wines: Floral white wines (viognier, torrontes) and medium-bodied, earthy reds (pinot noirs).

White bloomy rinds
These are cheeses that have a soft, white mold covering them. The mold causes the cheese to ripen from the outside in, usually creating a very creamy texture. These cheeses give off ammonia as part of the natural ripening process so try to avoid buying pieces pre-wrapped in plastic. They need to be able to “breath” as they ripen. If the cheese is in plastic too long, the ammonia is absorbed into the cheese, giving it a disgusting flavor. Some examples:

Brie and Camembert are the most well-known of the white bloomy cheeses. Made from cow’s milk, these cheeses tend to develop flavors like mushrooms, forest floor, wet leaf notes and minerals with hints of chalk. Wines: Bubbles, chardonnay and even light tawny ports.

Triple cream cheeses have a minimum butter fat content of at least 75%. Yum….very smooth and buttery. Look for the rind to have just hints of browning when the cheese is ripe and ready. Wines: Rich full bodied whites, riesling, sparkling wine, and dessert wines like Madeira and late harvest wines.

Soft ripening goat cheeses start off mild and have a soft interior that gains creaminess and boldness as they age. These cheeses sometimes have ash on the rind as well as white mold. Wines: Dry rosés (like this one), steely whites, whites with earthy tones, green fruit or citrus.

Washed rind
Washed rind cheeses have been doused in solutions ranging from salt water to wine and grappa. They’ll have a stronger nose sometimes too. The flavors created by washing can range from mildly strong to all out pungent. Easy to spot, most washed rind cheeses have an orange tint to their surface. Some examples of cheese that are washed to develop flavors:

Taleggio and semi-firm cheeses smell stronger than they taste, and these cow’s milk cheeses become less smelly if left to set out at room temperature for a little while – but I suggest a well-ventilated room! Wines: Big, robust whites; medium-bodied, tannin-forward reds that express a lot of earthy flavors; and giant red fruit bombs.

Epoisse is the classic French, cow”s milk, washed rind cheese. Super creamy when perfectly ripe, it has a very pronounced nose…very. It offers a lush mouthfeel, and more nuanced flavors than one might expect. This cheese is made in the heart of Burgundy (pinot noir country), so pairing this cheese to their reds is a great example of pairing terroir. But it begs the question… was this cheese made for these wines, or were the wines made to go with this cheese?

“Tomme”, “Tome” (or just “Wheel”)
The name refers to the shape — a wheel. I usually picture these mountain-style cheeses with a natural rind, and aged a bit. Age will vary depending on the wheel size, smaller sizes may age for as little as three months, and a giant wheel up to three-four years.

Tomme de Savoie is a great wine cheese from the Savoie mountains of France. It has a gray molted rind (a natural rind with a dry, patted down mold) a bone-colored body, and a semi-firm texture. This cheese is best eaten when it has been left at room temperature for a least a couple of hours. Wines: There are some regional Savoie whites that pair well (but hard to find), and a lot of Rhone reds.

Thomasville Tomme, a classic mountain-style cow’s milk cheese produced at Sweet Grass Dairy in Southern Georgia (USA). Buttery and smooth with herbal notes throughout. Wines: Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany, Spanish reds and malbec.

Comte, 80 pound wheels made in the Jura Mountains of France. This cheese is so good… nutty, toasted wheat and cave-influenced flavors show well. Wines: red Burgundy, red Bordeaux, and big cabernet sauvignon wines are great together.

Blue Cheese
I love me some blue cheese… the cheese that has had penicillin culture added to it. These cheeses can be made from all types of milk, can be firm or soft and gooey, and can be paired to a variety of wines.

Roquefort is the most renowned blue, made from sheep’s milk and aged in limestone caves in south central France. Rindless, slightly salty with deep bluing and almost gray when well-aged, they have explosive and subtle flavors at the same time. Wine: the classic pairing is with the sweet dessert from Bordeaux, Sauternes, and is classic for a reason: It takes you there.

Stilton, the venerable blue from England. Made in large cylinders, with a thin, dry natural rind and moderate bluing, Stilton has a long history. It’s produced in only three counties in England, with only six licensed makers, it’s a treat to enjoy a perfect ripe piece. Wines: Port, either ruby or tawny are the traditional pairing, I like a good Madeira with it as well.

Cabrales, a Spanish blue cheese, is made from a mix of milks and leaf wrapped, and is underrated as blue cheese for wine. The mix of milk gives it complexity and the leaf wrapping lends subtle flavor as well. Name and production controlled, it’s made by many small artisan producers. Look for one that has minimal browning in the paste — this reflects over ageing or poor handling. Wines: Sherry Pedro Jimenez, or even a Spanish cava sparkling wine.

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