Manchego is the workhorse of Spain’s cheese world. It’s as natural in an old-time Jerez bar astride a glass of sherry as it is on a cheese plate in one of Madrid’s Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s also one of the most accessible cheeses in the world; it’s probably in stock at your local shop right now, and its rich, round flavor makes it a consistent hit. Whether industrial or artisanal, Manchego’s inherent Spanish-ness makes it an excellent excuse to delve into the world of Spanish wine.
But a caveat before you go shopping: As you might expect from a PDO that covers more than three million acres and includes cheeses from a few weeks to several years old, Manchego is a large and diverse group. (The nonnegotiable details? A reliance solely on the high-fat milk of Manchega sheep, a breed acclimated to La Mancha’s hot, arid landscape and tough, herbal brush.) To get an insider’s perspective, I talked to Kerin Auth, a longtime evangelist of Spanish food and wine and owner of La Luz, a company that connects Spanish wineries with American importers. “It truly amazes me that between the aging, the producer, where it’s bought, the time of year it’s made… the category can vary [so much],” she says. Lucky for us, that means more opportunities for pairing.
“With younger Manchego—and many other cheeses—I like bubbles,” says Auth. While US customers can rarely find Manchego as young and tender as some options in Spain, even a four- or six-month-old wedge has a gentle sweetness that makes it an easy partner for sparkling wine. Go for Cava, Spain’s answer to Champagne; good versions tend to have a gentle texture and fresh apple flavors. “Gramona III Lustros is an all-time favorite,” Auth says. “Just the right amount of roundness and orchard fruit.” Or, look for a Reserva Cava, which ages in bottle for at least 15 months, developing a lush, toasty richness.
Gramona 2009 Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva Ill Lustros
Bodegas Coviñas Cava Brut Nature Gran Reserva Aula
For older Manchegos, Auth suggests aged Rioja, red or white—in particular, “a super classic, rustic, dirty Rioja, to enhance the bit of gritty texture age lends to the cheese.” Look for Riojas labeled Reserva or Gran Reserva, which have been aged for several years before release. “The whites get super nutty and mushroomy, and make an incredible match,” Auth says; for reds, “the more barnyard, dried fruits, and funk the better.” Both have the bright acidity to handle the fat and acid of the sheep’s milk cheese.
R. López de Heredía 2004 Rioja Reserva Viña Tondonia Blanco
R. López de Heredía 2005 Rioja Reserva Viña Tondonia
If you prefer more fruit and less funk, look to Priorat, a mountainous region in Catalonia, where the white wines take on golden fruit flavors and marzipan richness to cushion Manchego’s salty edges. Or go for an albariño: The grape’s waxy texture and almond-like flavors stand up to the cheese’s assertive flavors, and its acidity refreshes the palate.
Mas d’en Gil 2012 Priorat Coma Alta
Do Ferreiro 2014 Rías Baíxas Albariño
If it’s a sunny, warm day—or you’ve snagged a chunk of smoked Manchego—crack open a lightly chilled bright red, such as a “juicy un-oaked Mencía, to brighten the day,” Auth suggests; its dried cranberry flavors tart up the smoky cheese. Or match it to the cherry juiciness of a fresh, young Rioja—it, too, has enough acidity to play off the cheese.
La Osa 2014 Mencía Pardo
Biurko 2016 Rioja
Nearly all cheese appreciates a good sherry, and Manchego is no exception. For young wheels, seek out a light, delicate manzanilla. “The Callejuela Manzanilla has the perfect fruity prickle for the [cheese’s] delicate texture and flavors,” Auth says. Richer styles like Amontillado or Oloroso excel with older wedges, especially smoked versions: “They make that smoke taste nutty and meaty, like jamón Ibérico.”
Callejuela Blanquito Manzanilla Pasada
Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana Jerez Amontillado Napoleon
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