Cheese is king in Wisconsin.
Many of the state’s 1,200 licensed cheese makers will compete next month for awards for 30 different styles of cheese at the annual state fair, which is likely to attract 800,000-1 million visitors. Cheese is also a marketing emphasis of Wisconsin’s tourism department, which displays a directory of cheese factories and cheese tours on its website.
“Stop by our cheese shops and factories or visit a dairy farm, and, if you’re here for the summer, attend a cheese-themed festival,” the tourism department implores on its website.
Producing more than 600 types of cheese, Wisconsin’s cheese makers make 25% of all cheese in the USA, according to the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin trade group, which is funded by more than 6,000 dairy cow farms.
“Wisconsin is ideal for cheese making,” says Suzanne Fanning, the editor-in-chief of the dairy farmers’ online magazine. “The Great Lakes moderate weather extremes and supply essential moisture for grasses in Wisconsin, making the state ideal for cow husbandry. Limestone-based soil, which is highly productive for forage and fodder, is abundant. This affects the richness and depth of flavor of the cheeses — a concept known as terroir. Careful stewardship and quality products mean Wisconsin is recognized far and wide as a dairy powerhouse.”
In 2021, Wisconsin’s top-selling cheese was fresh mozzarella. More than 43 million pounds of it were sold, followed by cheddar (41 million pounds) and parmesan (29 million pounds), Fanning says.
“Wisconsin cheese makers are pioneers, explorers and dreamers,” says Molly Browne, an education manager for the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “They hone traditional Old-World styles like gruyere and parmesan and innovate new-world delights like Dunbarton Blue, an aged cheddar with blue veining.”
Browne offers her advice about the wines that pair best with some of Wisconsin’s cheeses.
“A sweet wine can be paired with an equally gentle and mild cheese,” she says. “A light, fruity rose wine matches a Wisconsin fontina with its full, yet gentle, flavor and a touch of tartness that ramps up with age.”
Red wine can complement more robust, aged cheeses, Browne says.
“Red wine typically has more tannins, allowing it to pair well with full-bodied, flavorful cheeses,” she explains. “Cabernet sauvignon is full-bodied, tannic and dry and pairs well with a firmer, more crumbly cheese. For a merlot, try a sharp aged cheddar. The flavors of the full-bodied red play nicely with the strong, tangy cheddar.”
White wines pair best with lighter, milder cheeses, Browne says.
“This allows the fresh, often fruity notes of the white wine to enhance the sweet creaminess of the cheese,” she explains. “The best white wines to pair with cheese are ones with a little more sweetness and acidity to cut through the cheese’s buttery palate. Chardonnay’s buttery mouthfeel contrasts beautifully with the drier, more complex notes of a good parmesan. The fruity, slightly nutty taste of the parmesan cuts the richness of the chardonnay and will have you saying, ‘Alright, just one more bite,’ in no time.