Approximately 46% of all California milk goes into making California cheese. One out of every six pounds of cheese produced in the Unites States comes from California. Nearly 90% of the cheeses produced in California are Mozzarella, Cheddar or Monterey Jack. The rest are “specialty” cheeses like Brie and Camembert. California is the leading dairy state, surpassing Wisconsin in 1993 in milk production. They are also number one in ice cream production. They are number two in cheese and butter production.
Per capita cheese consumption rose nationally fro 26 pounds per person to more than 29 pounds between 1993 and 2000, and is projected to reach 37 pounds by 2009. From 1970 to 1997, milk consumption was down 22%, while cheese use was up 143%. The European tradition of the “cheese course” is back.
California’s cheese making heritage mirrors its winemaking tradition. The Spanish missionary, Father Junipero Serra, who established the 21 missions that still dot the California coastline, introduced both wine and cheese when he arrived in 1769. A century later, in 1882, Monterey businessman and dairy owner Davis Jacks adapted an old mission cheese recipe and called it Monterey Jack, the best-known cheese created in California.
Cheese goes with a variety of things, including bread, fruit and, of course wine. Wine and cheese are companions that bring out the best in one another. Cheese makes any wine taste better. The milky proteins and richness of cheese takes the edge off a harsh wine and tames rampant tannins and acidity. Some guidelines: Light cheese (cow, goat or sheep’s milk) with light wine. The whiter and fresher the cheese, the crisper and fruitier the wine should be. Try Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Riesling. White wines tend to be more cheese friendly because of the relative lack of tannins, that astringent quality of many reds.
A classic pairing is Sauvignon Blanc and fresh goat cheese. Or, try a fresh rose or dry sparkling wine. Low acid, aged cheese needs a low acid white wine, say aged cows milk with an oaky Chardonnay. Gruyere, Emmenthaler and Swiss pair well with buttery, oaky Chardonnays, because the cheeses have a high salt content and earthy, nutty flavors. Heavier, richer soft or semi-soft cheeses can use a big Chardonnay or a light, fruity red, like Pinot Noir or Merlot.
Remember, not all red wines harmonize with cheese. Wines high in tannin like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are compatible with highly aromatic, darker and harder cheeses. The wash-rind cheese goes with a spicy Gewurztraminer, or robust red such as Syrah.
Blue and veined cheese would work with a Chenin Blanc, or a sweet late harvest Riesling. Sparkling wines work with soft ripening Camembert, Brie or Blue Cheese. Remember, the cheese influences the taste of the wine more than the wine influences the flavor of the cheese. Creamy cheeses will soften the tannins in wine. Try a Cabernet with Dry Jack or creamy Blue.
If California cheese is now where the California wine industry was in the 1970’s, what lies ahead? Only the consuming public knows for sure