Monday, April 21, 2008

King Island's Cloth Aged Cheddar: Cheese & Wine

Recently I tried a cheese from Australia that so warmed my dairy obsessed heart that I've been aching to wax on about it on this blog. So it seems fitting that the first wine and food pairing topic on the reader's request list that I'll tackle is cheese. It feels like I'm cheating.

In time I'll cover hundreds of cheese and wine pairings (my tummy is growling already), but the focus of this post is King Island's Cloth-Aged cheddar, and the wine to sip while you nibble.

Why cloth age?

Cloth-aging is a technique utilized to supply some of the finest cheddars in the world with their subtle panache. Wrapping the cheddars with cloth rather than plastic or wax allows air to more freely circulate around the cheese. The result is a cheese that ages, or dries faster than their waxy cousins. The outcome is a drier cheddar, with crumbly verses a chunky texture.

In addition, most often the milk used for the cloth-aged guys is raw (not heated to the point of pasteurization), and throughout the six months to a year plus that the cheese is aged, the milk becomes more nutty and buttery. This, for me, is what defines a cloth-aged cheddar: a crumbly, buttery, nutty cheese that sometimes reflects the grass or herbs the cows are eating who produce the milk. The majority of cloth-aged do not have as sharp of a flavor as the wax or plastic-aged, and so being, it's much easier to taste the nuances in the milk.

I've tasted everything from grass to thyme in a cloth-aged cheddar before, and the King Island Cheddar shone no less brightly. Caramel, nutty, butterscotch and tangy, the King Island Cheddar even provided me with a flashback to a day when I was eating fried oysters. It was that sweet, opulent, briny, and even light mushroom character in the cheese that sang to me. Go figure?

But what made my first taste of this cheese even more exciting for me was that it was also the first time that I had a cheese from Australia that left me enamored. Now, I'm sure that there are fantastic cheeses in the country, but most of them either just aren't imported to the U.S., or they are hidden away in cellars of the Fromage Maffia, who are unwilling to share their joys. I firmly believe this because although I order cheese for the wine bar that I work at and worked in a gourmet cheese shop prior to this job, I've never taken note of say, more than three excellent Australian cheeses. There is no other way to explain this.

What to drink with cheddar
Cheddar's a picky cheese. It doesn't like to be paired with quiet or delicate varietals, or even big Pinot Noirs. In fact, it stomps it's feet and refused to behave and show it's best side unless paired with a riper wine. A "fruit-forward" wine -a.k.a- a wine whose grapes where picked when very ripe and relatively sweet so that the first thing that hits the nose when tasting the wine is FRUIT!!!!) is the best choice for a Cheddar.

Like a screaming child with a scraped knee needs a lollypop, this cheese requires a little sweetness to tame its sharp edges. California wines are normally the ripest, and our Zinfandels and Syrahs in particular are excellent at exhibiting full-fruit while not giving up any of the other more refined flavors inherit to the grapes.

Keeping this is mind, some wines that I've tasted with this Cheddar, and others, that paired fabulously, are the Terre Rouge "Les Cotes de L'Ouest" Syrah, by Bill Easton, and the T-Vine Zinfandel, made by Greg Brown (whose Vin de la Table interview I will be posting within a week or so!).

The Terre Rouge is an Sryah made in Amador County, CA that has a brooding, smoky, spicy earthy, peppery character. But it also has thick blasts of raspberry and blueberry fruit, which means that it is just lush enough to pair nicely with the cheddar's bite.

The T-Vine Zinfandel is an extracted, bold wine with oodles of fruit. It's intense, deep, very peppery, spiked with blackberries, cassis, and graced with a great acidity and big tannins that make it stand out from other super fruity Zins. In England, people often have chutney or extracurricular fruit spreads with their cheddars. This is what the T-Vine was to me- a thick, fruity enhancer to the cheddar that together with the cheese, popped in the mouth. P.S. I've tried T-Vine Sryah with cheeses of this kind, and it works just as well.

Some fantastic cloth-aged cheddars from the U.S and the U.K, just in case Australia isn't in your local cheese shop.:
Shelburne Farms Cloth Aged, Vermont
arr Valley Cave and Cloth Aged CheddarC, Wisconsin
Isle of Mull and Westcombes Cheddar, both by Neal's Yard Dairy, England.

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Jason said...

You know, I have to totally back your support of Terre Rouge. Although I didn't try it with any cheese handy at the time, it was a seriously tasty wine. Lots of fruit -- and you know, I'm not normally a big slap-you-in-the-face-with-fruit kinda guy, but this was just damned good.

So enjoyable, in fact, that I'll be back in my favorite neighborhood wine shop to pick up another few bottles shortly.

Kirstin said...

Sometimes the fruit comes in handy with food. We tried it with Indian food and it was terrific with the spice too. And, the Terre Rouge has got so much more happening in the bottle that the focus really is on the well-rounded wine, not just that one aspect.
See you soon!