Cellar Tours Blog

Parlez-Vous Fromage??

French Cheese- Brie de Meaux melting

by Martina Hemm

Navigating your way through a mélange of French cheeses can be a bit daunting and leave you speechless, not in the least because there are over 1000 varieties to choose from. But before you walk away from your local cheese monger overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of creamy, milky, and smelly goodness that is French cheese, let me give you just a few names you would not want missing from your vocabulary, or table. After all, as the wise and clearly French lawyer and gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once said, “A meal without cheese is like a beautiful woman with a missing eye”.

Most of the following cheeses have been designated with the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC, which controls the production and origins of the cheeses affiliated with this status.

1.  Roquefort – AOC 1925

The oldest and maybe most famous cheese of France, Roquefort received its official designation of origin in 1925, but its patent dates back to 14th century.  This sheep’s milk cheese derives its signature taste and trademark green-blue veins from the mold that it forms while aging in the natural caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. When it has reached its peak Roquefort will appear to melt— the semi-soft cheese becoming even softer in its prime. The French savor its strong, pungent flavor spread thickly on a slice of buttered bread. Now a bottle of Blanc de Blanc and you have yourself a meal.

2.  Bleu, de Bleu de Auvernia, de Bresse, de Sassenage, Bassignac…

As with Roquefort, blue and green veins of mold run through the semi-soft white cheese, marking it as a Bleu and lending a signature taste. However, since these cheeses are not aged in the caves of Roquefort, Bleu cheese neither has the same name nor flavor as a Roquefort, deriving their names from the individual villages they come from instead. Although Bleu cheese is usually made from cow’s milk, you can also find Bleu de Chevre, made from goat’s milk, or Bleu de Brebis, produced with sheep’s milk.

French Cheese Bleu d'Causses

3.   Camembert de Normandie – AOC 1983

Recreated throughout the world, the true Camembert traces its origin to 11 century Normandie, but only officially became known as Camembert in the 18th century. To best conserve the velvety soft cow cheese, it is sold in small wooden boxes. Keep an eye open for Camembert de Normandie; this is a ladle-molded Camembert that is usually made with unpasteurized milk, which helps the true, mild and creamy milk flavor of this cheese unfold.

4.  Brie de Meaux – AOC 1980; Brie de Melun – AOC 1990

Proclaimed “the king of all cheeses” during the Congress of Vienna in 1968, this soft cow’s milk cheese has proven its popularity as a mainstay on menus around the world. In its prime the white rind of fungus should smell like a fresh, damp forest in the springtime, while the cheese itself must be soft and yellow. The cheese must be yielding through and through, if you cannot easily glide through the cheese with a cheese or even butter knife, it is not yet ripe. Be wary of Brie that has a slight smell of ammonia, it is probably past its prime.

5. Reblochon- AOC 1958

The story as to why this softer than Brie cheese is made with the milk of three different breeds of cow attests to the ingenuity of Savoie farmers. In an effort to evade paying their landowners high taxes on milk, 13th century farmers would only partially milk their cows, only to return to milking once the inspectors had left. This act of re-blochaient, or re-milking, is an integral part of the cheese’s production, as it offers a creamier milk that affords Reblochon its extraordinary consistency. A true Reblochon is produced from the second milking of Abondance, Tarine, and Montbéliarde cows. To facilitate the aging process, Reblochon is washed in whey and turned every two days as it rests in caves or cellars. The nutty, musky, and slightly herbal taste of the cheese meshes well with a fruity Beaujolais-Villages. Be sure to try Rebolochon when it is just ripe, any longer and its flavor turns bitter.

6.  Munster-Géromé – AOC 1969

Munster’s origins lay behind the walls of Benedictine monasteries situated in the Munster valley.  To escape the dull drum of their vegetarian diet, the monks invented this cow’s milk cheese, best enjoyed by breaking through its soft rind and scooping out its gooey center with breadsticks.  During its maturation the cheese is continuously turned and washed with water from the Vosges, which develops the cheese’s signature red, furrowed rind. Follow in the monk’s footsteps and savor creamy threads of Munster with a glass of chilled Riesling.

French Cheese Munster

7. Époisses – 2004

Yet another spoonable French cheese, Epoisses is for the lovers of a truly smelly fromage. This cow’s milk cheese originated during the 18th century in the midst of Burgundy at the Abbey de Citeaux. The cows that produce the milk for a true Epoisses graze for three months in the meadows of Burgundy, after which their milk is coagulated, washed with brine, and finished with white wine or brandy. The dark orange rind hides a silky interior rich with a salty and pungent flavor, which is great with sweet bread like a buttery brioche or deep-flavored walnut bread.

8.  Comte

From the region of Franche-Comte, this cow’s milk cheese melts in your mouth dissolving into a nutty bite that pairs beautifully with a dry white wine. The texture is firm but soft to eat, and the buttery yellow color of the cheese contrasts beautifully with its dark rind.

9. Chevre
Chevre, meaning ‘goat’ in French, refers to all cheeses made of goat’s milk. Chevres are exclusively made from goat’s milk and may be enveloped in herbs or leaves of their region, bathed in white wine, or coated in vegetable ash. The texture ranges from fresh, soft, semi-soft, and cured.

10.  Crottin de Chavignol – AOC 1976

One of the most famous Chevres, Crottin de Chavignol is produced in the region of Berry and derives its name from the town of Chavignol where it was first crafted. The goat’s milk cheese is refined in a bath of Sancerre wine, which is also cultivated in the region.

11. Tome des Bauges – AOC 2002;  Tomme de Savoie

Tommes are traditionally named after the towns in which they are produced and generally low in fat since they are made from the skimmed milk left over after making butter. We differentiate between Tommes made with milk from the summer and those composed of winter milk.  In the summer cows graze in mountain pastures, while in the winter they feed on hay. The summer milk lends a fruitier taste to the cheese, resulting in very distinct flavors between seasonally produced Tommes.

12.  Neufchâtel – AOC 1969

Known to many as a flavor of cream cheese, Neufchatel has much more noble platforms than bagels. Made in the Normandie from unpasteurized whole milk, this cow’s milk cheese is handcrafted by letting the coagulated milk hang in cheese cloth for 12 hours, after which the bacteria in the milk will form a layer of snow white layer of mold around the cheese while it ages for at least three weeks in damp caves. One of the most curious and traditional shapes this cheese comes in is that of a heart. Supposedly this began during the 100-year war when a young French girl gifted her future husband with her heart made of Neufchatel.

French Cheese Comte Vieux

People always ask us “when is the best time to come to the wine country” (in Europe where we work) and the answer we always give is: May or June for good weather and less crowds and of course September and October during the harvest time. Often however, those months might not correspond to the vacation time available to you!

Best time to visit the wine country

Not to worry, here is a list of suggestions of great regions to visit month by month, to give you inspiration when planning your wine tour in Europe:

January: Sicily

Best time to visit the wine country in Europe- January, Sicily

Enjoy the ski slopes of Etna one day and the beach the next! Sicily is a great destination in winter and offers varied landscapes, stunning wines (we love Donnafugata, Planeta, Tasca d´Almerita and more) and a fascinating architectural mix from Moorish to Norman, medieval to Spanish. Visit Taormina, Etna wine country, Siracusa, Ragusa, Cerasulo di Vittoria wine country, Marsala wine country, the salt mounds near Trapani and the unique city of Palermo.

February: Alentejo

Best time to visit the wine country in Europe- February, Alentejo

We´ve mentioned Alentejo before, as being a good option for a winter wine tour and say it again! While temperatures can certainly be crisp and bracingly cold, the sun is almost always shining in the Alentejo in winter, the rich red wines will warm you up and there are virtually no crowds. The landscapes are monumental, with noble cork forests, Arabic castles and vast vineyard-covered hills punctuated by white and yellow Quintas. Stay at the fabulous Convento do Espinheiro near Évora and spend a few days relaxing in this simply delightful, unspoiled wine region.

March: Campania

Best time to visit the wine country in Europe- March, Campania

La Bella Campania– what a wonderful region to visit in Spring! The Amalfi Coast and Capri are flourishing with wild flowers, the sun is shining and the oppressive summer crowds have not arrived. Naples is one of the most interesting cities in Italy, and home of the Vera Pizza and our favorite Archeological Museum in the world (with 99% of the collection of mosaics from Pompeii). The wine country is extensive and varied here, here is a list of tips on top cellars and places to stay, things to do, etc.

April:Jerez (Sherry)

Best time to visit the wine country in Europe- April, Sherry

Andalucía (Southern Spain) is alive with local fiestas and celebrations in April and also a great time to visit Jerez, in the heart of the Sherry wine country. Many bodegas (wine cellars) are located right downtown and it is one of the few wine regions in Spain that you can visit without a car. The Sherry wines are delicious, varied and completely and utterly undervalued. Taste a slightly chilled Amontillado while sitting in a flower covered Andalusian “patio” and nibble on juicy olives and panfried almonds… oh, and don´t forget the relaxing sounds of the Spanish Flamenco guitar, olé! Seville is also a short one hour train ride away. Tips on a great place to stay in Jerez here.

May: Bordeaux

Best place to visit the wine country in May- Bordeaux

Bordeaux is the perennial wine destination in Europe and often a “first” wine tour for wine enthusiasts. It is pretty much a wine lovers dream. The city itself is handsome and sophisticated, kind of a mini Paris, with a wide array of sights, fine hotels, wine bars, wine shops, and gourmet restaurants. It´s also on the door step of some of the most famous wine appellations in the world (whose “Chateaux” are often gorgeous)- Saint Emilion (also one of the prettiest villages in the region), Pomerol, Médoc, Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Julien, Sauternes, the list goes on. You can easily spend a week to 10 days visiting the wine country surrounding Bordeaux, town, and even combine a tour to Cognac (to the north) or Armagnac (to the south). If time permits, spend some time in neighboring Dordogne, one of the most breathtaking regions in Europe.

June: Douro Valley

Best place to visit the wine country in June- Douro Valley

For years this dramatically beautiful wine region was a best kept secret, known only to the Portuguese themselves, port fanatics and wine professionals. However, the luxurious Aquapura hotel opening and the New York Times article that followed (in 2007), has put the Douro Valley firmly on the radar for both casual and serious wine lovers. Expect  to find striking scenery, vintage ports, spectacular dry reds (and some dry whites), and a small but fantastic collection of hotels and restaurants, enough to easily satisfy you on a long weekend or even a week long tour if combined with the historic port lodges of Vilanova, across from Oporto. Take a private Rabelo cruise on the Douro and let the soothing landscapes glide by while sipping on chilled white port….

July: Rioja

Best place to visit the wine country in July- Rioja

Another region that was a well known secret for years, is La Rioja. And funny enough, it was also the launch of a luxury hotel (designed by Frank Gehry at the Marqués de Riscal wine estate) that garnished world attention on it. Rioja is always a delight to visit, but we quite like it in summer as temperatures are sunny and warm, the vineyards are lush and green, and you can combine a few days wine tasting here with a few days at the beach in beautiful San Sebastian (gourmet mecca, about 90 minutes north). Haro is home to some of the most historic “chateau” style wineries like Muga, Lopez de Heredia and Cune, all of which offer scheduled tours in English. If visiting Haro don´t miss lunch at Las Duelas, one of our faves. For something more exclusive, go on a private wine tour to cult estates like Roda and Remirez de Ganuza. Here are some other winery tips from a recent trip here this year.

August: Penedès

Best wine region to visit in August in Europe- Penedes

Again, we like the Penedès in the summer as you can combine a few days in the wine country (staying at Can Bonastre, but of course), with a few days at the beach (while closer to the Costa Daurada, that coastline is over exploited so we recommend the beaches of the Costa Brava such as Aiguablava and Sa Tuna). Located just under an hour from Barcelona (so a viable day trip), Penedès is the home of Spain´s sparkling “Cava”, as well as a host of red and white wines from such famed producers as Miguel Torres and Jean Leon, and high end estates like Pares Balta.  The famous Cava producers Freixenet and Codorniu open up daily for tours. There are some great restaurants in this region including Can Bonastre´s Tribia for high end, and Cal Xim for an authentic winemaker´s haunt. And for something unique, visit the ultra charming owners at Augustus Forum, making the best vinegars in Spain!

September: Tuscany

Best place to visit the wine country in September- Tuscany

Mama mia, Tuscany is a place you should visit at least once in your life! The splendid art cities of Siena, Lucca and Florence; the medieval villages of San Gimignano and Volterra; adorable hamlets like Monterriggioni,  San Miniato and Radda in Chianti are treats on the eye. And the fine wines of Chianti, Montalcino (Brunello), Maremma (Super Tuscans), Montepulciano (Vino Nobile) and countless smaller appellations, are what will attract you wine lovers. Tuscany is beautiful any month of the year, but September is a wonderful time to visit as the vineyards are beautiful and there is excitement in the air in the wine villages with the starting of the harvest.  Chianti is the region most established for wine tourism and many estates open up for general tours. For something more luxurious and private, take a chauffeured tour of the region on a grand tour or enjoy day trips from Tuscany´s main cities.

October: Piedmont

Best wine region to visit in October in Europe- Piedmont

October is the start of the white truffle season in Piedmont (and the truffle festival in Alba) and the ideal month to visit this gourmet wine region. The landscapes of the Langhe in October are probably some of the most picturesque and beautiful we have ever seen.The restaurants, some of the best in Italy (and this is saying a LOT!), all feature special truffle menus in autumn and a foodie tour here is an epicure´s wish come true. Piedmont is also home to the Slow Food movement (founded in the amusingly named town of “Bra”). Wine lovers flock here as the mythical Barolo is produced here, as well as Barbaresco and Gavi. There are a few luxury hotels and upmarket inns, and between wine tasting (we love Roagna, Massolino and Braida for its Barbera) , cheese tasting, truffle hunting and/tasting, and fine dining, you can easily spend a week of gourmet bliss in Piedmont.

November: Burgundy

Best wine region to visit in November in Europe- Burgundy

Bourgogne, Burgundy, is another region equally delicious! And November is a wonderful time to visit as the autumn colors on the vineyards are marvelous and the chill in the air is perfect to enjoy the region´s sublime red wines from Cote de  Nuits, Gevrey -Chambertain, Volnay, Pommard and of course Vosne-Romanée. Burgundy´s white wines are also world famous and you can taste them in their birthplace here in Meursault, Chablis, Puligny -Montrachet, etc. Your base could be in beautiful Beaune or in Dijon (yes, the home of Dijon mustard) or in any of the countless little wine villages in between. Noyers, Buxyand Vézelay are particularly delightful. Some highlights of Burgundy include the Abbey of Cluny; the spectacular Romanesque church of Vézelay; the Abbey of Fontenay; the network of canals (you can enjoy wine tours on Barges) and the pristine scenery; the pretty Chateau Meursault and Chateau of Bussy-Rabutin; the Clos de Vougeot; and of course the hundreds of wineries. And if time permits, you could also do a combo Burgundy and Champagne tour!

December: Alsace

Best wine region to visit in December in Europe- Alsace

Alsace is the quintessential winter destination with its charming Christmas markets and fairy tale villages. It feels German at the same time as it feels French and in fact has belonged to both countries. One of the main dishes here is Sauerkraut! The region´s neat vineyards, villages and farms are nestled in between the Vosges mountains to the west and the Rhine river to the east. While a microscopic amount of red wine is made here, Alsace is famous for its voluptuous and spicy white wines, perfect winter whites in fact. Stay in the darling village of Riquewihr and enjoy wine tasting at the numerous cellars located along the 38 vineyard trails on the designated “Route de Vin“. Top wines to look out for incude Marcel Deiss, Zind- Humbrecht, Trimbach, and Weinbach.

Do you have any suggestions for our readers of  wine regions and when?