I was recently introduced to Tillamook Specialty cheese from Oregon. While Tillamook has a cult following and is almost a household name with their regular cheeses, butter and ice cream, they have recently launched and are expanding their distribution nationally with some exciting new products. Firstly, Tillamook is a unique company of around $600 million being a farmer owned and operated “cooperative” with local dairymen in Tillamook, Oregon. This co-op is comprised of 80+ local family farms and has been in existence for over 110 years representing dairy experience, quality and a commitment to future generations.
While trying to pair wine with some of these exquisite cheeses, I was made aware that Specialty Cheeses, like wines sometimes use iconic landmarks tied to the cheesemaker’s location and heritage to name their cheeses. “Terroir” is a taste of place from the environment. It is the flavors and nutrients in the grasses reflected in the cow’s milk and ultimately the cheese. Tillamook has four such iconic names from the heritage from around the Tillamook Bay inlet: Cape Meares, Morning Star, Marker’s Reserve and Trask Mountain (a bit inland). So here is a rudimentary description on each area and the cheeses:
Morning Star: a crumbly 3+ year aged extra sharp cheddar which is named after a ship which was built by the first generation farmers to carry dairy products to Portland.
Maker’s Reserve: a private selection of exceptional long-aged cheddars with vintages available from 2017 back to 2010. Tillamook has patiently aged enough cheese so they could release quantities of each vintage annually. This was envisioned by their cheesemaker of almost 50 years.
Trask Mountain: A 15 month aged cheddar hand cut and cold smoked for six to eight hours with hickory and a hint of Oregon Coast breezes. It is located in Yamhill County with rich nutrients to the soil.
Cape Meares: Is the fist new cheddar recipe for Tillamook in 110 years, a mild & sweet English style cheddar. Cape Meare’s is a famous lighthouse off the coast of Tillamook Bay.
So without getting too deep into the details of farm & animal care, premium quality milk, proprietary cultures, heat shocking versus pasteurization, high butterfat & protein, low Somatic cell count, rBST-free, naturally aging, etc., all of which produces a signature creamy texture and flavor profile unique to Tillamook’s cheese! There is a lot more to producing great cheese than just milk.
So the task at hand was to pair 4 cheeses with 4 wines for a demonstration. While food and wine pairing are very common and relatively easy, doing cheese pairings adds another variable into the equation. Pairing a Cabernet Sauvignon with a BBQ’ed Ribeye steak is essentially simple. Doing a cheddar cheese with so many variations of locations, milk, how the cows were fed, nutrients in the soil, etc., doubles the variables in picking out a suitable pairing. For example to find the four wines to go with the cheeses, required no less than 22 wines to be tried with the cheeses. This was after consultation with two professional cheese mongers and tens of hours of research. Empirical tasting was the final criteria with several folks involved. While all the wines tried were excellent as a standalone wine, when macerating cheese and sipping the wine it changed so much but finally the winners emerged. The four outstanding wines with these cheeses rose to the top!
First cheese was Tillamook’s Maker’s Reserve Vintage white cheddar. The one tasted was their 2012, meaning it was aged 8 years. They also have very limited quantity of 2010 vintage. This cheese had a “light fruity and nutty profile with herbaceous notes that build up to a pepper finish and a crumbly, shattering texture that becomes velvety on the palate.” Paired with a 2017 Wood Family Vineyards Chardonnay which was won Double Gold at the San Francisco Wine Competition brought to life the creaminess in the cheese. The wine burst with lemon and pear, followed by butterscotch and as Rhonda Wood states “crackerjack flavors”. Just the right amount of secondary malolactic fermentation (mild butter flavor) and use of both tight and wide grain barrels produced a harmonic and symbiotic relationship between the wine and cheese.
The second cheese was Cape Meares Cheddar English Style Cheddar. This Specialty cheese is aged 12 months. For over 110 years their cheddar had not changed, however with this introduction they formulated new cultures for a new flavor profile. It was named best USA Cheddar Cheese at the 2018 International Cheese Contest. It also was awarded second place for Aged Cheddar Category at the 2018 American Cheese Society. This smooth, silky and “slighty sweet” English style cheese was paired with a School Street Barbera, from Chatom Winery. The grapes came from Calaveras County (Sierra Nevada foothills) and was aged 30 months in 25% new American oak and 5% new Hungarian oak. This wine had the typical Barbera aroma profile of plum, blackberry and almonds and flavors of blackberry and spices of clove, black licorice and soft leather. The two flavors of cheese and wine complemented and made for a delightful tasting.
The third cheese was Tillamook’s Smoked Medium Cheddar Cheese using hickory for the smoking. The cheese was aged 60 days and then moved to the hardwood smoker for the hickory smoke infusion. This flavor profile was not your typical cheddar cheese as it had a firm texture with oozing hickory smoke that was not overpowering but present. Once in your palate it was creamy and mouth filling. This was paired with Arroyo Cellars 2016 Zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma Valley). This Zinfandel possessed hints of oak, nutmeg and with a strong black cherry flavor profile. The winemaker calls this his “Christmas Zinfandel” with the various yuletide spices. The spiciness with the creamy and smoke flavors produced a flawless pairing.
The fourth cheese was their Hot Habanero Jack cheese. This Monterey Jack cheese has both habanero and jalapeno peppers. This proved to be the most difficult cheese to pair to the “hotness” of the peppers and the residual hot finish that lasted for 1-3 minutes! This is “not your social cocktail” cheese but truly needs the right audience and complimentary food and wine. A wonderful cheese for a wintery toasted cheese sandwich, especially when using flour tortillas. Now what to pair it with? We went through many wines and finally ended up with Jessie’s Grove Winery Port made with Carignane grapes. This 2009 vintage called “1868” provided just the right amount of sweetness and a thick viscosity to tame both the habanero and jalapeno peppers. This port coated the cheese in a deep and strong black cherry fruit flavors. At the end of the tasting, even some small morsels of dark chocolate were added to the cheese and with the wine, the winner was easy pronounced.
This was such a mind expanding tasting trial which took thirty days, 22 wines and an openness to experiment with other than the normal wines to complete. I believe these wines and cheeses were meant to be together, if not as soulmates, at least best of friends! Enjoy these delectable pairings.