Reflexiones por el Cristal: An Ode to Spanish Wine and Cheese

This week on the blog, an Ode to Spanish Wine and Cheese.

Wine and cheese, the Spaniard's way

Two more formidable companions?

I could not say

Spanish affinage and phenolics pair with precision

Refreshingly devoid of all

Antagonizing French derision

With a diverse medley of type and taste

Join the vinous jubilation, with haste!

For this week’s musings, a humble tribute

To España - ¡salud!

Okay, that was painful. I absolutely loathe poetry. Enough vexing shenanigans; on with the post.

Spanish Origins of Wine and Cheese

Spanish wine and cheese have ancient origins. Phoenician merchants, who founded the southern port of Cádiz, first planted vineyards in the Spanish region before 1,000 B.C. Some time thereafter, meandering the hillsides with their flocks, wayfaring shepherds would stash milk in zahatos - tanned and heavily-salted skins of sheep or goat. Here, the milk was left (at first, accidentally) to ripen. Ancient [accidental] affinage. The shepherds' seasonal pilgrimages and pastural wanderings advanced these rudimentary cheese-making techniques throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

The Roman conquest of Hispania and subsequent occupation in the Second Century B.C. brought good fortune for both wine and cheese. The cheese-making traditions of the nomadic shepherds became centralized and received a sophisticated, Roman upgrade. The regional vineyards flourished when they were integrated into the Empire, where wine was considered democratic and a daily necessity. I concur. During this time, Spanish wine was traded with the entire Roman Empire (hello, captive export market), and plentiful vinous beverage was required to satisfy a thirsty Roman Legion. Andalucía was a welcomed respite for the soldiers and a prime destination for drinking and frivolity. Party on.

With the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century C.E., the civilized world descended into the Dark and Middle Ages. Stable governance collapsed, replaced with Medieval feudalism. Chaos was pervasive. The only steady, guiding influence in the region was a religious one. Monks from different orders migrated to Spain, carrying with them foreign grape varietals and new cheese and winemaking techniques. Faith, wine and cheese were of divine concern. Dairy would help to sustain the communities established around the monasteries, and wine was a liturgical necessity. Of course, no one was surprised when a vinous beverage or two appeared on the monastic menu. Saving souls is a tough business, made easier with wine.

Regions and Styles of Spanish Wine and Cheese

One of the hallmark characteristics of Spanish wine and cheese is regionality. Spain has an extraordinarily diverse heritage, from the early Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the efficacious Greeks and Romans, to regional influences of the Moors, Celts, Basques and Catalans. Each region of Spain has correspondingly developed its own unique styles of wine and cheese, according to terroir, cultural traditions, farming and growing customs, animals that thrived in that particular environment, geographical variation and climate.

Regionality for wine and cheese is critically important, and protected under Spanish law. Cheese carries Denominación de Origen (DO) or Denominación de Origen Protegida (PDO) status, while wine regions are divided, on the more prestigious levels, into Denominación de Origen (DO) and Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC, formerly DOCa).  Behind each designation there is a regulatory council that governs the standards of quality, taste, safety, technique, and tradition established by that specific appellation.  When wine and cheese makers play by the rules, they are permitted to carry the registered label for that particular region. This system is intended to represent a region's authenticity, and guarantee a certain level of quality for the consumer.

I highlight three broad regions that demonstrate the diversity of Spain's offerings, along with wines and the dominant dairy source contained in each.

The Northwestern Coast: Green Spain

North of the Iberian Peninsula, along the Cantabrian coast from Galicia to the Basque Country, the maritime effects of the Atlantic produce a cool, wet and humid climate. Fertile mountains and canyons produce a lush, vibrant landscape. This rich, vegetative region produces half of the country’s cheese production, and its pastures are reserved primarily for cattle. Traditionally the villages were quite isolated from one another, and as a consequence there is significant uniqueness and diversity of cheese selection in this region.

The region’s primary milk source is derived from the mighty bovine. The lush, green pastures are ideal for cows, the prima donna of the milking world that demands only the best grazing grounds. The milk from these high-maintenance heifers is characteristically creamy, mild and sweet that translates into a more subtle base flavor in the cheese. As a result, the flavor profile can be more easily manipulated, with aging and ripening playing a prominent role in the final product. Despite the fact that it is often soft and creamy, cow’s milk is versatile and can be made into a many cheeses varying in texture, firmness and strength.

In this wet and humid climate, terroir and careful viticultural practices are critical. Granite bedrock and alluvial, sandy soils are an excellent combination for water drainage, ensuring that roots are not overly saturated. To counter the region’s extensive rainfall and humidity, winemakers must get creative.  Most vines are afforded extra space to sprawl and are trained on a wire trellis anchored by granite pillars that can be over seven feet in height. In the fall, laborers can be found tiptoed on upside-down grape harvest bins in their attempt to access the ripe grape bunches now forming a beautiful canopy over the vineyard. The area’s most distinguished appellation is Rías Baixas DO. It's famous indigenous varietal, Albariño, produces a light- to medium-bodied white wine with zesty acidity and ripe fruit flavors of peach, citrus, melon, and kiwi fruit. While Albariño is king of the northwest, a few light-bodied aromatic reds are made with Mencía in the Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra and Valdeorras DOs that have characteristically fruity and floral aromas.

Moving Inland: the Hot and Arid Plateaus of North Central Spain

Spain’s interior, sheltered from the tempering effects of the Atlantic, becomes increasingly continental and warm. Rainfall is scarce. North-central Spain is dominated by mountain ranges and higher elevation, helping to keep temperatures at a manageable level, and river valleys. To the south and central, the mountains give way to plateaus with scorching temperatures. The rolling plateaus become progressively less lush, replaced instead by rugged, windswept rocky pastures. This is prime territory for sheep, who are less finicky than their bovine counterparts when it comes to grazing pastures.

Cheese produced from ewe's milk is characteristically stronger in flavor and has the longest curing process. Sheep’s milk is significantly higher in fat and protein than cow or goat milk, resulting in a taste profile that is buttery and rich with mild grassy and nutty elements and a tart backbone.

In the warmer temperatures of the continental plateau regions, red wines dominate the vineyards. The most notable regions are Rioja and Ribera del Duero, the flagship wine regions of Spain bearing the coveted DOC designation and offering the best expression of the Tempranillo grape varietal. Tempranillo offers a wonderful and distinctive profile of fruit, dried herbs, an earthy-leathery character and forceful tannins. A few neighbors are the DOs of Navarra and Campo de Borja, focusing on intense wines with medium acidity, ripe fruit and mineral flavors made primarily from Garnacha.

The Mediterranean Coast

Spain’s Mediterranean Coast benefits from a warm climate that combines plenty of sunshine, Mistral winds, and the sea’s tempering maritime influence. Sound idyllic? Not necessarily. The climate can be hot, arid and extreme.

Goats can go anywhere, eat most anything, and don't mind the heat. For these reasons, they are found across Spain. However, it is on the Mediterranean coast, with its plentiful sunshine and hot, arid weather, that goats thrive. Goat milk cheese is frequently mild or medium with very distinctive flavors, for a few reasons. First, goats have strong stomachs and are accustomed to foraging through bramble, brush and wilderness. They will try anything once, and their diets often consist of a variety of aromatic and rich plants. Their milk (and cheese produced by it) picks up these flavors. Second, goat milk contains higher proportions of caproic, caprylic and capric acids, which result in higher astringency. With age, however, these biting characteristics mature into more creamy and earthy flavors. Goat cheese comes in a variety of forms, although due to the milk’s high water content, the most common is a mild, soft cheese. Notwithstanding, goat cheese can also be made into hard aged varieties as well as semi-firm cheeses (such as feta).

To the north in Catalonia, the Mediterranean coast contains the appellation of Priorato (or Priorat in Catalan), the only DOC region that does not focus on Tempranillo (although, in Catalan, it is called Denominacio d'Origen Qualificada or DOQ). Heat here is a strong factor, and enterprising winemakers accordingly turned to Garnacha, which grows in abundance as a more forgiving grape than Tempranillo. Priorat and neighboring Montsant (aka, the poor man's Priorat) allow warm-climate varietals of Garnacha, Cariñena, and smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to bake into an intense, powerful, and alcoholic wine. The Catalan coastal region of Penedès DO is home primarily to Cava and features three dominant grape varietals - Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. Further southwest down the coast in Valencia lies Jumilla DO, which has developed delightful wines over the last few decades from Monastrell (Mourvèdre in France), Garnacha and blends with other grapes, such as Bobal.

Tips for Pairing Spanish Wine and Cheese

Earlier, in the Wine and Cheese Convergence, I provided a few general pairing tips for wine and cheese. These tips are a great place to commence your pairing expedition. A few additional pairing tips.

1.      Fresh and soft cheeses love crisp dry whites, dry rosés, and sparkling wines. You might even get away with lighter bodied red wines with high acidity and fruity characteristics.

2.      Semi-hard cheeses possess firmer texture and stronger flavors. As such, they require wines with a bit more body, such as as medium-bodied whites, fruit-forward medium-bodied reds, and dry sparkling wine.

3.      Firm cheeses adore full-bodied whites and tannic reds. Sweet aperitifs such as Sherry also work to balance the saltiness characteristic of these cheeses.

4.      Blue cheeses require a balancing element of sweetness for the salty, savory and bold flavors. Aperitifs such as Sherry, sweet white and sparkling wines do the trick.

Below is a chart that I have developed with my own personal observations and pairings. This list is by no means intended to be exhaustive. There are, unfortunately, many Spanish cheeses and wines that I have not had the pleasure of tasting. This chart is only intended as a catalyst to motivate future vinous-cheese experimentation.

What is your favorite Spanish wine and/or cheese? Do you have any adventures pairing the two? Please share below!