Manchego cheese and Spanish wines make a great match. From the land of La Mancha comes not only “Don Quixote,” but this DOP sheep’s milk cheese and wines that go with it. Or perhaps, one should say them, because like wines from Spain, age of the product is as important to classifying Manchego as is the source of the milk and the basic cheese making process. This was brought into focus at a tasting presentation at The Carlton Hotel’s Millesime Restaurant on October 7, 2014. Mr. Ignacio Barco, President of DOP Queso Manchego, as well as Maitre Fromager Max McCalman did the presentation. Anthony Benitez of Vintage Wines supplied the wine.
There are definite parallels between wine and cheese production in Spain. The rules of wine in the DOs of Spain dictate that aging must be done in oak barrels (historically American, but French are also used). The same basic wine can be handled in new, old or a combination of them, for varying lengths of time, resulting in different products. This may be an over simplification, because each harvest may have fruit better suited to each of the types described below. The winemakers decide which parcel goes where based on the quality of the fruit. Sometimes, only certain styles are produced in a given year.
For reference, below is a summary of the current Spanish Regulations within the DOs for aging. Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero have the longest aging requirements. Oak barrique (barrel) aging is followed by bottling and then further bottle aging, finally being released by the winery when deemed ready. If a Spanish wine is on the shelf, it should be ready to drink, and of a style that the label indicates.
Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero
Joven: anything less than Crianza
Crianza: one year barrique / two years total age
Reserva: one year barrique/ three years total age
Gran Reserva: two years barrique/ five years total age
Elsewhere, including La Mancha
Joven: anything less than Crianza
Crianza: 6 months/ two years
Reserva: one year/ three years
Gran Reserva: one and a half years/ five years
Outside the DOs of Spain, these designations have no meaning, and often, if a wine is joven it either won’t be stated, or the term consecha may be used. These young wines are typically fresh and bright, with high acidity. Crianzas may have a softer tannic structure and somewhat softer fruit and more pronounced oak. Reservas show greater secondary and tertiary flavors, and even more wood, though the casks may have been used many times, resulting in less oak than might be expected. Gran Reservas always show lots of nuance and depth from their long storage time. Perhaps the best way to gauge these styles is to drink the same producer’s lineup of all the designations to see what you like. Using a uniform rating system, such as Quini will allow anyone to use the same parameters to gauge their preferences and compare these styles very easily.
Perhaps DOP Manchego cheese is not as easy to assess. This Spanish cheese gets more popular as it becomes more widely distributed. Actually, more is now consumed in the USA than in Spain or the entire EU. The milk must come from Manchega sheep that live in La Mancha, the plateau south of Madrid. At least 90% of their feed must be from the same district, mostly grazing on shrubs, grasses and grain that grow there. Animal rennet must be used to coagulate the proteins; size of curd, salting, size of wheels and even the markings on the rind are dictated by law. However, like Spanish wines, wheels can be aged for different times resulting in different styles of cheese. Here are the classifications:
Semi curado……up to 3 months
Curado…………up to 6 months
Viejo……………up to 1 year
Anejo…………..over 1 year
The color of the final rind gives the purchaser an idea of what to expect, where lighter color means less aging and darker means more. Semi curado are softer with a milky flavor, whereas curados will be drier, showing more lactic acid and character. Viejos exhibit nuttiness and definite assertive character, and anejos can approach the sharpness of an Italian pecorino, albeit less salty and more buttery.
Just like with their wine, the cheese is not singular in style, but quite varied. Combined with the fact that genuine DOP Manchego is made by 68 individual producers, there are also other variations, based on both forage and seasonality of the milk. You can think of this as the cheese’s terroir.
After a tasting of five Manchegos (3, 6, and 12 month from pasteurized milk; 3 and 6 month from raw milk), we were treated to a selection of eight finger foods made with them, four cold and four hot, accompanied by a small selection of wines. These were:
1. 2009 Go de Godello (85% Godello, 15% Dona Blanca), Soto del Vicario
2. 2005 50/50 (50% Cabernet, 50% Tempranillo),Pago del Vicario
3. 2006 Penta (Tempranillo, Cabernet sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Petit verdot), Pago del Vicario
Most interesting to me with the pairing, were 1 and 3 for very different reasons:
Go de Godello was barrel fermented, which is not typical for Godello, followed by new French oak barrels for 3 months, producing a white wine that approached sherry like oxidative characteristics not associated with Godello, but going perfectly with the cheese and the food served. At first I thought the wine was off, but Anthony explained that this was the style intended and persuaded me to try it with the cheese. He was right. It retained the acidity of Godello that was expected, but a very different nose and palate. This was a new twist for me, though in light of some Georgian wines (former SSR) sampled recently, gave me something to ponder. My Quini score of 81 is the middle ground. Think 5 points higher or lower, depending on what you want this Godello to accompany and whether you are stuck with a fixed concept of what it should be.
Penta is named after the 5 types of grapes and the 5 months spent in French barrels. This is a New World style red wine, with the Syrah spice shining through. I would have liked this wine with almost anything, or on its own. Luscious fruit and balanced tannins made it a lovely package. My Quini score was 90 with no additional comments here, but please look at the detailed review.
The 50/50 was my least favorite, with a Quini score of 74. Not enough vitality or character to make it interesting for me. Soundly made, but not enticing.
All said, what can be bad when you match good cheese and wine, especially with good company? Thank you to Manchego cheese for inviting me.