Americans love cheese today like never before. The greater availability of classic European varieties and a burgeoning movement in artisanal American cheese, as well as a growing appreciation of pairing wine with cheese, have us eating more of it and at higher quality. Check out this sampler in five styles culled from the 100 Great Cheeses issue of Wine Spectator (Sept. 30, 2008; the magazine is a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado).
CHEDDAR: Now produced around the world, the first Cheddars are named for an English village where this tangy cheese was made from raw milk in the twelfth century, using a stacking process to drain away the whey. Montgomery's, of England, is the gold standard, with its sweet, buttery nose and fruity flavors. GOAT France's Loire Valley is one of the most important producers, but this cheese, which is lower in fat and some say easier to digest, also rendered some of the flagship expressions of the California culinary revolution. Try the Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove, with its unctuous, lemony tang for a quintessential American version. The Selles-sur-Cher is an exceptional French cheese with an earthy aroma and piquant flavor.
ALPINE: Initially a cheese type defined by origin, Alpine cheese is now a family marked by the influence of mountain herbs and wildflowers devoured by cows at high altitude. The results are sharp with floral, fruity and nutty notes (holes are optional). Rolf Beeler, of Switzerland, makes a Hoch Ybrig that is big, round and buttery, but with piercing notes and a sweet, nutty finish that seems never to stop.
WASHED RIND: That's the polite term for what you might otherwise think of as "stinky cheese." The aroma comes from a process of washing the rind in wine, brandy, beer or brine. Once you get past the mushroom/barnyard nose, you can savor its nutty, fruity, almost cooked apple palate. France's Epoisses version, made with pasteurized milk, has subtle flavors in a cheese you should eat with a spoon.
BLUE: The cheese beauty with the look of precious marble dates to ancient Rome. The distinctive color comes from an edible mold that develops from extra penicillium in its production. The best are savage yet compelling. Try Crater Lake Blue Cheese or Rogue River Blue, both from America's Rogue Creamery. The former has earth and spice and a buttery finish. The latter, a cult favorite, is fruity, but robust.