When we picked our 100 favorite cheeses for Wine Spectator’s special cheese issue, we were impressed by the number of excellent blue cheeses. Within the 16 that made the list was a surprising array of aromas, flavors and textures. For example, the French Bleu des Basques had a meaty aroma, a buttery flavor and was less salty than other blues. Valdeon, from Castille-Leon in Spain, had an intense blue aroma with loads of fruit and a creamy texture. We even noticed a remarkable diversity within Roquefort, Stilton, and Gorgonzola.
That blue cheeses are so varied shouldn’t have been so startling given that they and other cheeses are influenced by similar factors. One is the milk. Most blue cheeses, such as Stilton and Gorgonzola, are made from cow’s milk, which can be rich and buttery but provides a more neutral backdrop than the nutty and gamy flavors from sheep’s milk (as in Roquefort and the Bleu des Basques) and the tangy earthiness of goat’s milk (as in Britain’s Harbourne Blue). Some blues, like Cabrales from Spain, are made with a combination of milks.
As with wine, terroir is also a factor. The milk used for the sweet and creamy Fourme d’Ambert is influenced by the abundant microorganisms in the flora that cows eat in the mountainous Auvergne region of France. Seasonal variations in flavor can occur when animals rotate from pasture to pasture to graze, such as the Ayrshire cows that produce the milk for Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen.
Jasper Hill and Oregon’s Rogue Creamery (which had three blue cheeses in our top 100) are two of many innovative blue cheesemakers in the United States. The biggest reason for those innovations is that Americans aren’t constricted by the traditions and regulations found in other countries. For example, Roquefort can only be made near the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France, where blue cheese was allegedly conceived more than a thousand years ago.
When shopping for blue cheese, look for uniform bluing for a more even flavor and better mouthfeel. After your first use, wrap the cheese in foil, which doesn’t react to the cheese the way plastic wrap does.
Blue cheese is quite versatile in prepared dishes: crumbled into salads (with endive, walnuts and pears); blended into pasta sauces; whipped into polenta; and put atop pizza (with caramelized onions). As part of a cheese course (with other cheeses or by itself) accompany blue cheese with nuts (almonds, walnuts); ripe fruit (figs, pears); dried fruit (Medjool dates, figs); quince paste; and breads (baguettes or a more involved raisin-walnut).
Not surprisingly sweet wines are more successful with blue cheeses. While Port with Stilton and Sauternes with Roquefort are classic matches, other sweet wines make good blue partners too. Try Banyuls or Madeira instead of Port and Coteaux du Layon or late harvest Riesling in lieu of Sauternes.
Don’t forget sparkling wine (dry with pungent blues, softer and sweeter with creamier cheeses), Pedro Ximenez Sherry (with Cabrales) and Tokaji, which goes with most blues. In fact, given the assortment of blue cheeses and the many wines that go with them, it may take a blue moon before you run out of pairing possibilities.