Sheep's Milk Cheeses and Wines to Pair with Them

Quesos de Oveja - Sheep's Milk Cheeses

Manchego from Castilla-La ManchaManchego cheeseManchego cheese
A firm-to-hard textured sheep's milk cheese from the central Spanish region of La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote, manchego is probably Spain’s best-known and best-loved cheese. The classic taste of manchego is tangy, sharp and richly flavored, a flavor that becomes more complex as the cheese ages. Paired with dulce de membrillo (quince paste), it is a Spanish tradition at the end of a meal.

At its best, aged anywhere from a few months (manchego fresco) to more than a year (manchego curado), it is mild yet full-flavored in its youth, sharper and nuttier with age. Manchego reserva may be aged for as much as two years when it becomes very sharp indeed. Cheese forms weigh between 6 and 7 pounds. The traditional cross-hatch pattern on the rind goes back to a time when Manchego was aged in molds made from braided esparto grass, though nowadays the molds are made of plastic. Much manchego is industrially produced, so choose carefully, specifying artisanally produced manchego. There are a number of very good producers, especially from Cuenca province.

Wine Matches: Fino, amontillado, or dry oloroso sherries and Montillas; verdejo-based Rueda white wines; young red wines from La Mancha; and big red wines (but not the more complex, long aged styles) from such places as Priorat, Toro and Jumilla. Served at the end of the meal, perhaps combined with dulce de membrillo, this fine cheese is well complemented by Spanish dessert wines such as a moscatel from Alicante, Valencia, Navarra or Málaga.

Zamorano from Zamora province in the region of Castilla y León, traditionally made by nomadic or transhumant shepherds, is a firm-textured cheese made from the rich, creamy milk of Churra sheep, with an assertive, nutty flavor that many prefer to its cousin Manchego. A good Zamorano has the same regal bearing as French BeaufortZamorano cheeseZamorano cheese or parmigiano reggiano. Aged a minimum of 100 days, the cheese develops a color between white and ivory and an intense piquant flavor that’s long-lasting on the palate. (Castellano, another cheese from the region, is similar but industrially produced, usually from pasteurized milk.)

Wine Matches: A verdejo-based Rueda Superior white, a Cigales rosado, or a powerful Toro red, all from regions neighboring Zamora, are an exception to the rule that few wines of distinction come from areas where a great cheese is produced. In this case, Zamorano, a truly great Spanish cheese matches up well with wines from these three D.O.s from the same area of Zamora and Valladolid.

Roncal is a buttery cheese made from the raw milk of two heritage breeds of sheep, Lacha and Rasa-Aragonesa, in one of seven villages in Navarra’s Valle de Roncal. This is one of Spain’s oldest cheeses—records of Roncal and registers of its flocks go back to the 13th century. The country’s first DO for cheeses was awarded to Roncal in 1981. The cheeses, which weigh 5 to 7 pounds when finished, are made in summer, when the sheep are on pasture in the high Pyrenees, then aged over several months to develop a rustic, nutty flavor and a smooth, chewy texture that some liken to a Tuscan pecorino or a youthful manchego. When aged, Roncal has a pleasant flaky texture, and when well-aged it’s a superb grating cheese.
Roncal cheeseRoncal cheese

Wine Matches: Navarra rosados, chardonnays, and young red crianza wines as well as late harvest moscatel.

Idiazábal An unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque Country and Navarra, Idiazábal is traditionally made from the milk of Latcha sheep, a heritage breed that grazes on lush green summer pastures high in the Spanish Pyrenees. The rounds, weighing 5 to 9 pounds, are aged from 2 to 4 months, and are almost always lightly smoked, a legacy of the old tradition of aging cheeses in the chimney of a mountain hut. This creates a hard, dark-amber-colored rind that protects the cheese’s supple, almost creamy interior and gives it a nutty, subtly smoky aroma._The traditional cheese of the Basque Country, Idiazábal is so revered that few other cheeses are made in the region. Each autumn the most acclaimed Basque chefs and celebrities converge on the market town of Ordizia, in the heart of the mountains south of San Sebastian, to award a prize for the best of that season’s Idiazábals.

Wine Matches: Spritzy white Txacoli de Getaria; chardonnays and rosados from Navarra; young, fruity red cosechero (vine grower/producer) wines from the Basque Rioja Alavesa; and both dry and sweet sherries.

Torta del Casarfrom Cáceres and Torta de la Serena from Badajoz, both from Spain’s far-western Extremadura_province, are raw sheep's milk cheeses and sufficiently alike that even cheese gurus sometimes have a hard job telling the difference. Both cheeses are made from the milk of Merino sheep, once cultivated almost exclusively for their wool; moreover the milk is coagulated using a wild thistle rennet. Moreover, both can be described as Torta de la SerenaTorta de la Serenavery rich but rustic, with a deliciously creamy, buttery texture, and an assertive but pleasant finish. Torta del Casar has a somewhat smoky flavor, although it is not a smoked cheese. It can be semi-soft and sliced, but both cheeses are more apt to be ripened to the point of gooiness. At which point they are served with the top cut away, so that delicious runny cheese can be scooped out with a spoon or piece of crusty country bread. Not well-known until very recently, these are now regarded among the world’s finest cheeses.

Wine Matches: For both these stellar cheeses, good palate-refreshing whites from Galicia are excellent counterpoints—Albariño from the Rias Baixas region, and godello-based whites from inland Valdeorras or Ribeira Sacra, or from Ribeiro on the Portuguese border. Rosados from Cigales in Valladolid province, La Rioja and Navarra are also good. But these rich cheeses are also complemented by chilled fino and manzanilla sherries and cellar-temperature dry amontillados and olorosos, as well as a semi-sweet, aged Fondillón (said to have been a favorite of the Count of Monte Cristo) from Alicante.

Read about goats' milk cheeses »

© 2018 The Culinary Institute of America