Story by Manos Angelakis
Cheese photos courtesy of Cheeses of Spain
Spanish Wines and Cheeses
A match made in heaven
“Cheese and red wine have natural affinities for each other,” James Beard wrote in the 1949 edition of “The Fireside Cookbook.”
Indeed, there is a remarkable affinity between wine – both red and white – and cheese. That’s due to the fat content and saltiness of cheese and the acidity and residual fruit sugar of wine. And yet, the affinity is not absolute. Strong cheeses can obliterate the taste of delicate wines, and oaky red wines can neutralize the nuanced flavors of complex cheeses.
By the mid 18th century some enterprising Andaluz tavern owner realized that if tapas of dry-cured meat like jamón Serrano slices or hard cheese were to be consumed at the same time as wine, the salt in these nibbles would cause thirst, therefore the customer would consume more wine. Another possible explanation for using a cheese tapa was when the tavern sold poor quality wine; the strong smell of a very ripe cheese covers the poor smell of cheap wine.
And this has been the birth of free tapas, when consumed with wine in Spain’s tascas. One free tapa for every glass of wine; though nowadays free tapas are offered in only very few local establishments in Spain’s larger cities.
Manchego is the Spanish cheese best known beyond the Iberian borders.
It is an almost-hard, very flavorful cheese from La Mancha made from sheep’s milk. It is a bit oily on the palate, piquant with a very long finish and a mild, nutty aftertaste. The interior is dense, with tiny holes and a light ivory coloring. It is aged from 3 to 15 months and the older it is, the more assertive it becomes.
I drink full bodied red wines with an aged Manchego.
Formiga de Vellut, a blend of Garnacha Negra, Cariñena and Syrah from Catalonia has been an exceptional pairing with Manchego; Estremus, a rich, ripe, jammy blend of Alicante Bouschet and Trincadeira from Portugal’s Alentejo has also been an exceptional pairing. Francos Reserva, also from Alentejo’s DFJ Vinhos was tasted with oenophiles I was traveling with, accompanying a cheese plate that included Manchego (Spain), Kashkaval (Bulgaria), and Kefalograviera (Crete). Believe me... it was very interesting to see the reaction of these people, many long time high quality wine drinkers, when they had a couple glasses of the wine with those cheeses.
Another wine that also worked beautifully with Manchego was the Jose Ordoñez, Torre Muga, a blend of Tempranillo, Mazuelo and Graciano; all indigenous Spanish cultivars. The wine is from Rioja, with dense purple color and a mineral and spicy palate. I had it with Manchego and slices of quince paste – another classic sweet/salty palate pleaser.
An artisanal cheese made from goat’s milk is Garrotxa. It is a semi-soft cheese with a grayish-blue rind coloring, from mold intentionally allowed to grow on the rind while the cheese is ageing. It is mildly acidic with an earthy flavor, a firm texture and a light-straw colored interior. Delicate, with a hint of nuttiness and a clean finish, it pairs very well with Cava and other Spanish sparklers.
Paired with this cheese, Cava from Catalonia, Penedés and Empordà is a natural accompaniment to the mature Garrotxa, with its taste of fresh mushrooms, walnuts, and hazelnuts.
Three indigenous varietals – Macabeo (also known as Viura in Catalonia) Parellada and Xarel.lo are mostly responsible for Catalonia’s fame for outstanding sparklers made in the shadow of the Montserrat mountain (though some producers nowadays mix the indigenous white varieties with a small amount of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay).
A glass of cava is becoming one of my favorite summer libations. It is similar to Champagne, though softer and less acidic and even at the highest quality, much less costly. The taste differentiation between Cava and Champagne is the result mostly of climactic differences – Cava is created in a more Southern, warmer climate where the acidity in the grapes is lower at harvest and the sugar levels are higher; Champagne is much higher in acidity, because of its much northern latitude locality that makes the cooler climate produce more acidic wines. The grape varieties used are also different: cava is most usually produced from all indigenous Spanish white grapes versus Champagne’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, one white and two red grapes.
A cava can be either white or in a few cases rosé (rosado), and comes in a variety of sweetness levels: Brut Nature (bone dry), Brut, Seco, Semi-Seco and Dulce. The better cavas are sensual and very creamy in the mouth. Clean ripe fruit notes dominate the toast and smoky hints in the background; the majority of the cavas I tasted are buttery and velvety and perfectly balanced.
During my Catalan sojourns, I visited the Agustí Torelló Mata winery, one of Spain’s finest cava producers. Only 20% of the estate’s output is exported, the rest is consumed within Spain. All bottles are vintage dated and carry the disgorgement date on the back label. Their flagship product, Kripta Brut Nature Gran Reserva is completely hand-crafted from start to finish. Made with the oldest organic grapes in the estate (vines 70+ years old), its name comes from the vault (crypt) at the winery where bottles rest for 48 to 60 months, depending on the vintage, after they get disgorged. This sparkler is very dry, crisp, vibrant, full-bodied and full-flavored and it will still evolve for years after disgorging. It has clean aromas and delicate floral notes, and the delightfully fruity palate has an obvious presence of fruit and soft toasted nuances in perfect harmony and equilibrium.
Another fine Cava I liked is from the Rexach Barqués winery, founded in 1910, when Pere Baqués Rafecas started construction of the cellar and underground cave where Rexach Baques Cavas are stored and aged. The company is currently managed by Montse Rexach, the 4th generation general manager and winemaker. The vineyards are located in Penedès. The grape blend for all varieties (except the Brut Rosé which is created from 100% Pinot Noir) is the classic 40% Parellada-30% Macabeo-30% Xarel.lo.
During my visit I tasted 4 variations on the theme: Brut Nature Gran Reserva, Brut Imperial Reserve, Gran Carta Brut Reserva, and Brut Rosat.
All the white cavas have 11.5% ABV and are produced in 30,000 to 40,000 bottles per year. The rosé is 12% ABV and produced as 5,000 bottles per year. Aging on the lees is 54 months for the Brut Nature Gran Reserva – with no dosage – 42 months for the award winning Brut Imperial Reserva, which is dry, but without pronounced acidity, and 36 months for the Gran Carta Brut Reserva. The Brut Rosat is aged for a minimum of only 12 months to preserve acidity and the intense fruity aromas of cherry and strawberry.
Cava also pairs well with other well-known Spanish cheeses like Idiazábal (a pressed hard cheese from Navara made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk) and Tetilla, another soft, spreadable cheese from Galicia, made from cow’s milk. Tetilla is formed in the shape of a rounded pyramid shaped like a young breast, topped by a nipple. It is soft and easily spreadable, buttery with a creamy mouthfeel and slightly tangy. In Galicia it is often served with fresh, ripe black figs when that fruit is in season.
The above mentioned pairings are just a small sampling of the possibilities. During my trips to Catalonia, Zaragoza, Andalucia and the Basque countryside I visited numerous tascas, cervecerias, and cafés. I was served wonderful still wines, cavas or “vermut” with cheeses and charcuterie on fresh bread (tapas) and never had a bad meal.
Try them… you will like them.
To your health!
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