Saturday, May 25, 2013

Celebrate Spring with 5 Great Cheeses and Wines to Pair With Them

May 25 is National Wine Day, 

June 4 is National Cheese Day

Appropriately close since wine and cheese are natural partners, and when paired properly, each enhances the experience of the other.

May is also Oregon Wine Month

And haven’t we come a long way since the early 1970’s when those  first  pioneers defied conventional wisdom and  came here to plant their grapes.

 In less than a decade, Oregon wines gained worldwide recognition and Oregon took its place on the world wine map.

The growth of Oregon’s wine industry helped to spark a food revolution here as well. 

 Craft brewers, local micro-distillers, artisan bakers, and talented chefs created a food culture that has made us a prime destination for food travel attracting visitors from around the world. That food culture also includes a wealth of artisan cheeses, many of which have won prestigious awards at the American Cheese Society’s annual competitions

In fact, northwest cheeses have taken Best of Show in three of the past four years. 

  • Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue won in 2009 and 2011.  
  • The 2012 winner, Seattle’s Beechers Handmade Cheese Company beat out 1710 other entrees with its Flagsheep: a mixed cow and sheep milk cheddar from herds of Willapa Hills near Centralia Washington. Unfortunately, only 23 wheels were made, and the demand is far greater than the supply. If you are in Seattle, you may still be lucky enough to score some at Beecher’s Pike Street Market store, but the rest of us are likely out of luck.

So in celebration of wine and cheese, here are my recommendations for delicious pairings to enjoy  with the  glorious (at least here in Northwest Oregon) spring weather

Beechers Handmade Cheese Company  Flagship

 While the Flagsheep is in short supply, Flagship is readily available. This is a semi-hard cheddar style cow milk cheese from herds in Duval, Washington.  Aged for 15 months, it has a firm texture which crumbles on the tongue with a hint of the crystal texture found in aging goudas. It is  creamy on the palate with flavor that starts  sharp and mellows to a nutty finish.  

This is a big, full flavored cheese, and would pair well with a big, fruity wine such as
 Cowhorn’s 2009 Reserve Syrah from southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

This biodynamic producer has consistently gotten rave reviews from the national wine press (the Wine Spectator gave it a 91), and it is well deserved.  The Reserve Syrah has lots of juicy blackberry and plum fruit and the lovely earth, leather, and peppery spice aroma and flavor of the best New World Syrahs.

Equally lovely would be the Seghesio Family Vinyards 2010 Sonoma County Zinfandel.
This is also a wine with big, beautiful fruit; and along with the dark berry, there is plenty of leather, tobacco, mocha,  sage, and sweet spice. But beware; it goes down so easily , you can forget that this wine clocks in at 14.8% alcohol. It is also a wonderful value at about $14

Crater Lake Blue  

A cows milk blue cheese from Rogue Creamery in Central Point,Oregon, Crater Lake Blue is a perennial favorite in my house for its delicious balance.

It’s not too salty, it is moist without being runny, the blue mold does not overwhelm the milk character of the cheese and allows a delicious sweetness and complexity to show through on the palate.  It is that overall balance that makes it such a good cheese to pair with wine.

Try it with one of the many port style wines from Oregon such as Willamette Valley Vineyards Quinta Reserva Port-style Pinot Noir

This ruby  port is made in a lighter style, which I find particularly appealing with the Crater Lake Blue.  Made from 100% Pinot Noir  fortified with brandy distilled from their own estate fruit. the pinot character shines in this delicious wine, with plenty of soft, juicy black cherry, strawberry and raspberry fruit aromas and flavors, sweet baking spices, vanilla, and a hint of chocolate. The finish is rich, long, and not too sweet  with hints of toasted almond and brandied cherries. Production of this wine is limited, so if you are lucky enough to score a bottle, snap it up, as it tends to sell out quickly. This wine sells for about $50 for a 500 ml bottle.

The Crater Lake Blue is as at home with a tawny style port as it is with a ruby. 
Try it as well with Ficklin Aged 10 years Tawny Port from Madera, California. Made from two of the traditional Portugese port wine varieties: Tinta Madeira, and Touriga National, the long barrel aging and subsequent exposure to oxygen changes the color of the wine from deep red to a deep copper, and imparts aromas and flavors of poached pear, honey, raisins, toasted nuts and caramel that are delicious with the cheese. It retails for around $28.

An alternative to Port style wines with Crater Lake Blue is the Brooks Sweet P 2008 Willamette Valley Riesling.
Had I tasted it blind, I would have identified it as German; not from the New World, and certainly not from Oregon. The wine is gold, with just a hint of terpines on the nose (terpines are naturally occurring hydrocarbons that develop as Riesling takes on age), along with peach, nectarine, yellow delicious apple, white flower and honey. The nectarine and apple come through on the medium sweet palate as well. There is plenty of acidity to balance the residual sugar, and the wine coats the mouth to a long finish that transitions from stone fruit to a hint of tangerine. Its flavor and acidity perfectly balance the creamy and salty notes in the cheese. (around $22)


Mount Townsend Creamery Seastack  

is a semisoft cows milk cheese crafted from Brown Swiss and Holstein milk from the Maple View Farm only 30 miles from their Port Townsend, Washington location. This is a mold ripened cheese which has a layer of charcoal ash and salt just under the rind which helps to dry the cheese. As it ages, the center remains crumbly while the layer between the center and the rind becomes runny. The flavors are citrusy and earthy, mushroomy and nutty, with a nice briny tang. This is a cheese that is born to pair with Pinot Noir.

2010 was a great year for Oregon Pinots, and a delicious wine from one of the Willamette Valley pioneer winemaking families is the Elk Cove Vineyards 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which is also very
attractively priced at $27.

For those who have tracked the sometimes stratospheric prices of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, you know that this is a bargain for a wine of this quality.  Produced from Pommard and Dijon clones, it is classic ripe red fruit and truffle on the nose, which beautifully picks up the earthy, mushroomy aromas and flavors of the cheese. The wine is lively with good acidity, polished tannins, and a rich finish. (91 Wine Spectator, and 97 points and Best Buy from Portland Monthly Oregon’s Best Wines 2012).

A principle of food and wine pairing is that you can either complement flavors (such as with the truffle mushroomy aromas in both the Seastack and the Pinot Noir,) or you can go in the other direction and contrast aromas and flavors.  A lovely wine to contrast with blooming rind and washed rind cheeses is Viognier, a varietal famous in the Northern Rhone Valley which has found a home in the New World up and down the west coast. This is a grape that can easily become over-ripe, alcoholic and bitter- but when grown on the right site is intensely fruity and aromatic, mouth filling, and elegant. Stags Leap Winery has been making viognier for years, and they know full well how finicky this grape can be. The Stags Leap 2011 Viognier, (about $25) gets it right with peaches and orange blossom on the nose; citrus, stonefruit and bright acidity on the palate to cut through the creaminess of the cheese, and a long lovely finish.

Pholia Farm Elk Mountain

This goat milk cheese hails from Central Point Oregon, and the cheeses are produced from a herd of Nigerian Dwarf Goats; a breed which produces a very high butterfat milk. The farm is fully sustainable, producing all of its own electricity. The goats are able to pasture most of the year, supplemented with spent grain from the Wild River Brewery, which gives the cheese a hoppy, nutty aroma and flavor.  Elk Mountain is a semi-soft mountain style  raw milk cheese made in the style of aged Tomme  from the Pyrenees. The cheeses are aged 6-8 months, during which the wheels are washed with Wild River Brewery Honey Wheat Ale which gives the rind a gold color. It is firm, dense, and slightly flaky.

In addition to full bodied ales, Elk Mountain would pair beautifully with bubbles; and one of my favorites is the Argyle 2008  Knudsen Vineyard Julia Lee’s Block Blanc de Blanc .  

2008 was a wonderful year for Oregon chardonnay,  and sparkling wines from Oregon Chardonnay were equally delightful.  This is a full bodied Blanc de Blanc with a fine bead and a delicious aroma of orange blossom, honey, brioche and pear. On the palate, crisp pear,melon, sweet citrus and white flower with a long lovely finish. (92 points Wine Spectator) Sells for about $45

A great value in domestic sparkling wines can be found in New Mexico. New Mexico, you ask? You bet.

New Mexico, in fact, is the oldest wine producing region in the US, and Gruet makes some of the best and most affordable sparkling wines using the traditional method (the method used to produce Champagne) available anywhere.

The Gruet family came to New Mexico from France where they had already been making champagne for 30 years. Visiting the region, they met several European winemakers that were producing wine grapes with good success. Given the lack of opportunity to expand production in France, they decided to try planting a vineyard at altitude (more than 4000 feet in elevation) to take advantage of cool nighttime temperatures to maintain acidity in the grapes.  The experiment was a success, and Gruet has been producing sparkling wines in New Mexico ever since, most of which sell for under $25 per bottle. 

The Gruet Non-Vintage Blanc de Noir contains a non-traditional 25% Chardonnay along with the  75% Pinot Noir. It shows lovely raspberry fruit (from the Pinot Noir), along with a biscuit yeasty note from 2 years of aging on its lees. Add to that a creamy texture, lovely mousse and pale salmon color, making this a delicious sparkler that you can afford to drink every day for around $15. 

Fern Edge Goat Dairy Fresh Chevre . I adore fresh Chevre- on salads; melted on flatbreads, baked in a gratin with fresh tomato sauce, or stuffed into fresh figs, wrapped with prosciutto, and heated on the grill. I’ve even been known to eat it with a spoon and savor the tart creamy and slightly goaty flavor as I sip a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc .  The Fern’s Edge Goat Dairy in Lowell, Oregon makes a mel- in-your-mouth creamy, herby, grassy chevre. The plain version is lovely, and the one I buy most often, but they also sell a number of flavored cheeses with herbs and fruit grown on the property. The Herb de Provence, Fig Walnut and Honey; and  Pear Anise are standouts as well.

My “go to” wine for Chevre is always Sauvignon Blanc. Its tart acidity mellows the cheese and the grassy notes of the wine complement the chevre’s grassy notes. 

Two local standouts for me are the Sullivan Steele 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from the Rogue Valley  ($22), and the Sineann 2011 White Table Wine,  made by Oregon wine maker Peter Rosback  in New Zealand from Sauvignon Blanc ($11)

The Sullivan Steele is full of peaches,melon, tropical fruit and pink grapefruit. Not News Zealand and not Sancerre, but a Sauvignon Blanc that is something in-between. The acidity is there, but this wine is smooth and bright and delicious with the cheese.

The Sineann is labeled as white table wine despite being 100% Sauvignon Blanc because it didn’t show the profile that Rosback  wanted in a varietally labeled Sauv Blanc from New Zealand. Maybe not, but as far as I am concerned, it is delicious. There is plenty of tropical fruit and grapefruit, but it is lighter, not as assertive as most Sauv Blancs from Marlboro; but it is still crisp, refreshing, and easy to drink. At $12, it is a great pour.

So dig in. National wine and cheese days are a great opportunity to invite  friends,  taste  cheeses and wines and decide which are your favorite pairings; and as Julia would say, “Bon Appetit” 

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