Cream of the Crop

By Christine Hyatt

If you heard some boisterous cheering going on among Oregon’s cheese crowd recently, it’s not without good reason. This year’s Best of Show award at the American Cheese Society Conference, one of America’s foremost cheese judging events, was awarded to one of our own cheesemakers.

Rogue River Blue, made by Rogue Creamery in Central Point, a small town just outside Medford, won the prestigious award at the 26th annual conference held Aug. 2–5 in Austin, Texas. The cheese took top honors in a highly competitive field of 1,327 cheeses—the largest-ever number of entries—from throughout North America. Competition judging teams score cheeses based on appearance, aroma, flavor and texture.

After each entry is judged by a team, the 88 first place winners were placed in front of the judges who chose their top three cheeses. “Best of Show” is then awarded the top vote-getter from among this elite group. Second place went to Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery (California), and third was shared by Carr Valley (Wisconsin) Cave-Aged Mellage and Consider Bardwell Farm (Vermont) Rupert.

The first Oregon cheese to take “Best of Show” honors, Rogue River Blue is produced for a short time between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, when the milk of the pasture grazed herd of Brown Swiss and Holstein cows at the Rogue View Dairy is at its peak of richness and flavor.

A true reflection of local terroir, the wheels are carefully hand-wrapped in local Syrah grape leaves that have been macerated in Clear Creek Distillery Pear Brandy and aged to perfection for up to a year before release each fall.

Bringing home the top award was the culmination of a successful day for Oregon cheesemakers who garnered a total of 22 awards, including first-place ribbons for Willamette Valley Cheese Co. Perrydale, a cow-sheep milk Gouda-style cheese; Tumalo Farms Classico, an aged goat milk Gouda; and Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue.

Oregon’s cheesemakers weren’t the only award winners at the conference. Team Oregon—Steve Jones, owner/cheesemonger of Portland-based Steve’s Cheese, and Tom Vanvoorhees, Rogue Creamery tasting room manager—took first place in the first-ever merchandising competition. The contest, modeled after the annual French competition, Caseus, judged teams on aesthetic and technical skills as well as cheese knowledge.

All in all, it was a banner year for Oregon at the annual cheese-tastic event. Next year, the conference comes back to the Northwest with Seattle playing host Aug. 23–25, 2010. Watch this column for more information about cheese-centric events open to the public.

Oregon Cheese Tasting

To celebrate the amazing cheese producers in Oregon, I had the oh-so-difficult task of sitting down with a plate of great cheeses and a selection of fine Oregon wines to uncover the most palate-pleasing matches. 

I began with six delectable cheeses: Ferns Edge Dairy Chanterelle Pyramid, Juniper Grove Buche, Tumalo Farms Fenacho, Willamette Valley Cheese Co. Perrydale, Tillamook 100th Anniversary Cheddar and Rogue Creamery Rogue River Blue.

Cheeses were paired with four exemplary Oregon wines: 2003 Argyle Brut, 2006 RoxyAnn Pinot Gris, 2008 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir and 2004 A to Z Wineworks Red Blend. The results show a variety of wine-friendly cheeses that are just the thing for an early-autumn tasting party.

The Chanterelle Pyramid made by Shari Reyna at Fern’s Edge Dairy in Lowell receives a true Oregon-centric treatment when an unbelievably light and fluffy fresh chèvre is encased in earthy, savory chanterelle mushrooms. The result is a delightful, easy-to-love nibble that is incredibly friendly to all wines tasted. Standout combinations include Argyle Brut, whose earthy notes mirror the richness of the chanterelles, and, amazingly, the Red Blend from A to Z. This mild-side cheese stands up to the smooth bold flavors of the wine.

Pierre Kolisch of Juniper Grove has been producing extraordinary French style goat cheeses in Bend since 1985. His perfectly ripened Buche reflects the care and craftsmanship perfected over almost a quarter century: rich, palate-coating with discernable ripening at different stages beneath the rind. Another versatile and wine-friendly match, favorite pairings include the smooth and fruity Pinot Noir whose berry notes temper the earthiness of the cheese and the well-balanced tropical fruit of the Pinot Gris.

Fenacho is a goat’s milk gouda-style cheese made by Flavio DeCastilhos of Tumalo Farms near Bend. Wheels are studded with aromatic fenugreek seeds that impart a caramelized, maple sugar-like note to the mellow paste of this positively addictive cheese. The bubbles and fruity notes of the Brut are fantastic as a foil to the richness of the paste, and the cheese brings out a compelling edge of coffee flavors in the A to Z blend.

Rod Volbeda of Willamette Valley Cheese Co. crafts the outstanding Perrydale from the combined milk of his herd of Jersey cows and flock of sheep. The result is a concentrated, slightly sweet and caramelly creation. Combined with the Pinot Noir, the cherry and raspberry notes of the wine come to the forefront. The Pinot Gris provides a minerally palate-cleansing counterpoint that is ideal for serious sipping.

A century of making Oregon’s best-selling cheddar has culminated in the production of an outstanding wheel of 100th Anniversary Cheddar produced in the summer of 2006 and aged to perfection. The recent release proves to be a flexible partner with a variety of wine types. Favorite combos include the bubbles of the Brut, which finish with an agreeable toastiness, and the bold Red Blend that goes head to head with the robust cheese.

Rogue River Blue proves a more elusive match with its audacious savory, almost bacon-like notes with a fruity edge. The all-encompassing flavor of the cheese, bold with subtle nuances in equal measure, is a profound food tasting experience that demands an equally complex wine. Perhaps there’s something to the idea that local terroir often leads to the finest combinations as the Southern Oregon counterpart A to Z provides just the foil to the memorable and robust notes of the blue.

In Oregon, cheeses are available locally at farmers markets and Steve’s Cheese, Foster & Dobbes and New Seasons Markets.

Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She welcomes cheesy questions at .

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