Edward Behr wrote about cloth-bound Vermont Cheddar cheese in issue number 75 of The Art of Eating, his outstanding quarterly journal on food and wine. I've been wanting to try this cheese since reading the article. Good cheddar - forget the blocky orange food-product that passes for cheddar in supermarkets, good cheddar is world class cheese. And Behr says that this particular cheddar, Cabot Creamery's Vermont Cloth-Bound Cheddar is "the world's best cheddar." Hard to be more definitive than that. Edward Behr does not use that kind of language often. More on this cheese, all quotes are from the Edward Behr article:
Very little is made --"Cabot makes just 50 wheels of the cloth-bound cheddar every two months..."
Almost no one ages cheddar in cloth anymore, but it makes the finest cheddars --"The best English Cheddar is aged merely in cloth, the same cloth that lines the molds and prevents loss of curd during pressing. This traditional 'bandage,' left in place, keeps the new cheese from sagging outward and provides a barrier against flies, once an important consideration."
It requires skill in the cheese cellar and it is time consuming and expensive -- "For the cheese producer, the great advantage to vacuum-sealing in plastic is that it eliminates all the turning, rubbing, and brushing of traditional aging."
Cloth-bound cheddar loses water to evaporation, about 12% of its weight. The concentration, the breathability of the cloth, and the surface molds on the cheese produce complex flavors -- "We made the same cheese in a vacuum-seal..., and compared the two. You're just not getting the same intensity of flavor."
Is there a classic wine pairing for Cheddar cheese? Behr, strangely, doesn't offer any advice in the article. My gut instinct was Oloroso Sherry or Port, something fortified. I checked around the Internet (information super-highway, for those who are unfamiliar) and found nothing definitive. I was on my own, and with no Oloroso or Port in the house. I honestly could not think of a red wine that I wanted to drink with this cheese. I decided on an off-dry white when I read this in the Behr article:
This cheese's outstanding appeal, apparent in some wheels more than others is a powerful caramel sweetness, to the point that it overtakes other flavors...Where does so much caramel come from...a special starter culture: 90% of the flavor of a piece of cheese comes from the milk, unless you've added something to change the flavor, which in this case we have.And let me use that quote as a springboard - I did not like this cheese. And it wasn't a borderline, on the fence situation. Plain and simple - I didn't like it. I didn't like the caramel flavor - it didn't taste like cheddar. I know, after all that build-up! Edward Behr is a master of the edible and potable, but I disagree on this one point. It wasn't just me, either. My friend who tasted it was not impressed, and BrooklynLady tried it on another evening with no fanfare whatsoever, made a face and said "This doesn't taste like cheese." And she's right, it doesn't. It tastes like caramel and weird bitter vegetables masquerading as cheese. Why did they have to add the fancy starter to alter the milk's flavor? What would this have tasted like with a neutral starter? Did I get a chunk from a poor wheel?
Anyway...the 2002 Domaine Huet Vouvray Le Mont Demi-Sec, about $32 on release, Robert Chadderdon Selections, was so awesome that the cheese ceased to matter. I chose it because I thought it would have the acidity to stand up to a rich cheddar, and also might compliment the sweet flavors of the cheese. Domaine Huet is, with Philippe Foreau, the top of the top in Vouvray, and this wine was a great example of why this is true. Although it clearly will live forever, it is in a beautiful place right now, full of rich aromas and flavors, and cracking acidity. The nose is the essence of Vouvray, with beautiful orchard fruit and a woolly, waxy undertone. After about an hour there are clear chamomile notes too. This is a powerful wine that crackles with energy in the mouth, but it is also graceful and elegant, very well balanced. It's as close to a perfect glass as I've had from this part of the world, and my attempts to describe it just seem silly compared to the experience of smelling and drinking it.
What is the classic wine to pair with cheddar, anyway? Was I right - Oloroso?