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A Vertical Tasting of Artisan Cheese. Genius!

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When I was a winemaker, we would often conduct vertical tastings of our wines. The idea behind these tastings was to take the same wine – say a Cabernet Sauvignon – and taste different vintages to compare how the wines varied from year to year.

It gave us a feel for the way the wines were evolving, and also helped us determine how each could be best used: should we release the wine as a single varietal, should we release it with a specific vineyard block designation, or should we blend it with other wine to showcase it to its best advantage?

There are, of course, lots of reasons why a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon would taste different than a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps 2009 was drier or wetter, or hotter, or colder than 2010. Maybe we amended the soil with limestone one year, but not the next. Whatever the reason, no two wines ever taste the same in successive years.

Now that I operate in the cheese world, I was thrilled to see the very respected cheesemakers at Jasper Hills promoting a vertical tasting of their cheeses. It’s about time we bring this concept into the cheese world!

So many people have no idea that an artisan cheese is likely to have different flavor profiles by virtue of being a handmade product. With industrial cheesemaking, consistency is achieved through blending milk batches: Farm A’s milk is blended with Farms B and C’s milk (although on this scale we are usually talking about dozens, if not hundreds of farm’s milks being blended) to achieve the same fat/liquid/solid ratio every time a batch is made.

With artisan, or farmstead, cheesemaking, this all goes out the window. The small producer is usually making the cheese from a single milking’s output. So if the animals were grazing on a field of rye with marigolds mixed in on one day, and were moved to a pasture full of alfalfa and clover the next, the milk, and therefore the cheese, will taste very different in each of these two batches.

With cheese, there are two ways you can do a vertical tasting. You can take the same cheese and taste it at different stages of aging to see how the cellaring process is affecting the flavor, or you can, as Jasper Hills is doing, compare different batches of a cheese of a similar age to identify differences in texture, flavor, or appearance, based on the forage the cows were eating at the time, as well as all those other factors of terroir such as weather, season, location, and on and on and on.

Realizing that this is a fascinating world that has yet to be explored, the folks at Jasper Hill, one of America’s best cheese producers and agers, have put together a package of three batches of their Harbison, made on three consecutive days at the end of March that you can order as a set to hold your own vertical tasting.

And to get you started, they’ve given their opinion as to the changes they taste in the three batches:

  • March 24, 2015 (Batch 150324): This batch has flavors of button mushrooms, buttered cabbage, and a slightly pitchy finish. It has a tasty rind. They think this batch may take on some broccoli and/or roasted garlic flavors as it ages.
  • March 25, 2015 (Batch 150325): Here there is a touch more acidity in the cheese. There are flavors of bright tangy yogurt with sweet and floral notes. This one may become savory and meaty as it ages.
  • March 26, 2015 (batch 150326): now there are balanced flavors of cultured butter and sweet milk with fruity notes in the cheese. The center is a touch more acidic with some wilder flavors. Some wheels have a light dusting of mucor (a harmless gray mold) on the rind.

So we have three batches of the exact same cheese, made on three consecutive days, but each cheese tastes very different from its brothers!

The folks at Jasper Hill are among the best in the American cheese making and cheese affinage (the fancy French word that means the art of aging cheese) scene. So if you’d like to explore your inner curd nerd, we highly recommend their limited time offering.

And if you do it, they (and we here at Cheese+Provisions) would love to hear about your experiences! Just reach out via social media with the hashtag #verticalcheese.

This experiment might not be for everybody, but remember, it doesn’t have to be all that formal. If you’ve got a party planned where you would normally lay out a cheese plate with three types of cheese, why not try this vertical tasting instead? Your guests just might be amazed and get a new insight into the fascinating world of artisan cheese!

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