As with France's vinous and dairy products, Spanish wine and cheese make great companions, so I set out to play matchmaker. I was fortunate to visit Spain recently and try a number of wines - inevitably accompanied by cheese - and decided to supplement my education with some research here in New York City. Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village generously provided me with several great cheeses from their immense selection, and I took them over to see my friends at Union Square Wines to pull some bottles from their shelves that seemed like promising partners.
I began with a creamy mild cheese called Tetilla, which brought back fond memories. The cheese comes from Galicia, in the northwest of Spain above Portugal, and was the first piece of food I put in my mouth when I visited the region last December (The second was some wonderful grilled octopus, a traditional Galician preparation; wonderful, but it made an odd breakfast for me, still on East Coast time). Tetilla is a soft, creamy, mild cow's milk cheese; in Spain, these are less common than those made from sheep or goat's milk, but Galicia's green hills make it the Spanish leader in cow's milk production - cows being pickier eaters than sheep or goats. The cheese's name, which means "nipple," comes from the fact that the cheese is molded into a shape that is said resemble a breast. If so, they must have had Madonna's get-up from the early nineties in mind; the shape is on the cone-like, Hershey Kiss side.
Its risque shape aside, this cheese followed a classic rule of wine and cheese pairing: pair a cheese with a wine from the same region. Galicia is home to the Rias Baixas appellation which makes white wines from indigenous grapes: Albariño primarily, but also Treixadura and Loureira; these are the wines that brought me to visit Galicia. On this occasion I tried the tetilla with the Nora 2002 Albariño, which shows an aromatic nose of peach, apple, and melon with a minerally finish. Paired, it passed its fruity qualities over to the cheese, lightening it, and took on a more Chablis-like character itself. San Simón is Tetilla's alter-ego, a smoked version that's a bit meatier. It also works with Albariño, but preferably something with a brioche edge that will blend well with the smokiness like the Condes de Albarei 2002. If you like cheese croissants it's the match for you.
Cabrales has already made waves in the U.S. among lovers of blue cheeses, but for a blue that's a little tamer (i.e. one that non-blue fans might forgive you for serving) but still creamy, piquant, and flavorful, try Valdeon. It's also the only other cheese we tried that is made with cow's milk, albeit usually mixed with goat's milk depending on seasonal availability. Traditionally it is wrapped in leaves and aged in caves for two or three months, where it develops its blue veins.
Like many blues, Valdeon calls for a sweet wine. Alvear's 2000 Pedro Ximenez Añada worked well, adding a fullness and roundness to the cheese. In this case the wine may be the real winner; the Pedro Ximenez can be a bit too syrupy, and the cheese toned this down and allowed me to concentrate on the figs, dates, and caramel of the wine without being overwhelmed by its texture and mouthfeel. A 2001 Altos de Luzon Jumilla from Finca Luzon also profited from being paired with the Valdeon. The wine's tannins cut through the fat in the cheese, while the slate and other earthy notes emerged from the wine, toning down the fruit.
However, the Jumilla's best match was an Idiazabal, made from sheep's milk in the Pyrenees. Traditionally this cheese was smoked; my sample represented a growing trend away from that treatment, allowing it's buttery and nutty flavors to stand on their own. Together with the cheese, the wine retained all its aromas of blackberry, plum, and slate, and its tannins once more addressed the fat of the cheese to clear the palate. The cheese seemed creamier and smoother in the company of this wine, and they both share an up-and-coming status. The Jumilla DO in Murcia, near Alicante, allows the use of Garnacha, Tempranillo, and Mourvedre (called Monastrell in Spain); it has long been an area of great potential, and the winemakers here have begun applying modern craft to creating more dynamic wines than they have in the past.
The seriously intense Monte Enebro is a cheese that benefits from aging and mold without developing blue veins. A coat of ash and mold forms on the outside of this creamy, spreadable goat's milk cheese, and its tanginess is buttressed by a walnutty base. A Cava like the Marques de Gelida NV Brut brings forth a wonderful smokiness from the cheese, whose nuttiness, in turn, brings out yeasty, bready notes to accompany the sparkling wine's citrus and green apple aromas. Both wine and cheese gain smoothness from the pairing as well. If you've been overindulging in sparkling wines and would like something still, try a sherry like the Delgado Zuleta Manzanilla; there's enough acidity in this wine to keep the cheese's tang in control, and they both possess a complementary nutty element.
A goat's milk cheese with a decidedly different style is Garrotxa, from Catalonia. It's firm, with notes of chalk, wild herbs, and brine as well as a touch of nuts to it. The 2002 Naia is also from Catalonia, in this case from the Rueda DO. The primary grape here is the indigenous Verdejo, and the Naia displays lots of floral aromas which are typical to the grape, along with touches of peach and melon. The herbal scents of the cheese together with the wine's floral qualities bring to mind wind-blown Spanish hills, and the texture and acidity of both partners balance quite well.
Torta de la Serena is a cheese I make a beeline for every time I see it served. Seriously rich and creamy, this soft cheese from Extremadura owes its distinctive, somewhat stinky character to the Merino sheep of the region and the thistle rennet used in making the cheese. Its bold style needs a big red wine to stand up to it. I've enjoyed this cheese on occasion with the 2001 Condado de Haza from the Ribera del Duero, a wine made from 100% Tempranillo grapes; it's dark berries, licorice, and chocolate wraps around the cheese like some yet-to-be-invented bon-bon. An earthier wine also does great things with this cheese; the 2000 Blecua from the Somontano DO is an international blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot together with Spanish natives Garnacha and Tempranillo. Earth, slate and forest floor aromas are layered with black fruits and a clear balsam note from oak-aging; it smooths the more aggressive aromas in the cheese and readies the palate for another bite.
The last successful pairing I tried brought together what may be the two Spanish products most well-known in the U.S.: Rioja and Manchego. 1994 was a special vintage in Rioja and prompted many winemakers to lay down some of their wine according to the special aging requirements to create a Gran Reserva. The Ramirez de la Piscina 1994 Gran Reserva still shows all the character of the tempranillo grape set among the aromas of extended aging: red fruits like cherries and dried cranberries floating over earth, smoke, and barnyard aromas. Meanwhile Manchego is a rich sheep's milk cheese with a mild nutty character and sometimes a pepperiness that increases with aging. In this case my semi-aged Manchego brought new life to the wine, obscuring the barnyard character and filling out the fruitiness. There was just enough tannin left in the wine to balance with the fat of the cheese, and the smoke of the wine blended well with the cheese's nutty touch. Manchego comes from La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; literature's classic pair meets its match on the Spanish table with wine and cheese pairings that ride together just as well.
My thanks to Liz Thorpe at Murray's Cheese and Alexis Beltrami at Union Square Wines for their help in preparing this article.