If you’ve been following Cheese + Champagne for the past two years, you’ve read our musings on cheeses from all over Europe – France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Greece and Portugal. And while there are many, many European cheeses that Colleen and I love and enjoy on a regular basis, we’ve taken special notice of the newer artisanal cheeses that are made right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Many are so new that they didn’t make the Wine Spectator 100 Great Cheeses list that sparked this blog, and now through we’re practically done with the list, we decided it was time to turn our focus exclusively on America. We won’t give up eating our beloved Chaources, Roqueforts and Manchegos, of course, but you’ll be reading more about the exciting newcomers and rediscovered favorites from our own shores.

I can’t think of a better cheese to start with than one hailing from my home state of Wisconsin. Uplands Cheese Company of Dodgeville is making it a very merry holiday for all of us cheese fanatics with the release of its first batch of Rush Creek Reserve. Inspired by the Swiss Vacherin d’Or, which isn’t available in the United States due to FDA regulations on imported raw-milk cheeses, this dreamy, drippy cheese is carefully made with autumnal raw cow’s milk and aged for just 60 days. Each 12-oz. wheel is bound with spruce bark and washed with various bacteria that give the rind its orange color. You’ll want to avoid tasting that rind, though – its grittiness mars the creamy goodness that lies underneath. Rather than cutting wedges from the side, run your knife along the cheese’s circumference on top, peel off the rind and dig in with a spoon.

I first heard about Rush Creek Reserve this spring, when Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch visited the Cheese Shop at France 44 with a huge wheel of his award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. After swooning over the Pleasant Ridge Reserve for several minutes (and scoring a complimentary wedge in the process), I asked Andy if he was working on anything new, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve got this new cheese that I think will be ready in November. It’s like Vacherin d’Or.” I was immediately intrigued and asked Andy if I could come down to Dodgeville to watch the cheesemaking process, and he said he’d be happy to welcome me. Unfortunately, the demands of a new baby and a new job didn’t allow me to visit this year, but I don’t think I’ll let another year pass before knocking on Uplands’ door…

Anyway, back to the cheese! Saying it’s good is an understatement. Saying it’s great is an understatement. This is a world-class cheese that can go against Epoisses, Langres or any other washed-rind cheese that France has to offer. The paste is so sumptuous, so sublime, that it’s a dessert, not an appetizer. Not as stinky as Epoisses, Rush Creek Reserve still has the barnyardy aroma that a cheese lover associates with spectacular cheeses, as well as a meaty, slightly smoky flavor that is easy to savor. You can protest all you want that washed-rind cheeses are too strong or stinky – I challenge you to have one spoonful of Rush Creek Reserve and not be an immediate convert to the washed-rind cause. This is a truly special cheese and the perfect gift for the caseophile in your life.

Alas, it’s not easy to find. Its seasonal nature only allows Uplands to release Rush Creek over a few short months, and not all cheese shops have received shipments yet. I was lucky to snag one at France 44 (thanks, Benjamin, for putting me on “the list”), but Colleen hasn’t been able to buy one in Northern Virginia so far this winter. If your local cheese shop hasn’t had it in stock yet, be sure to ask your cheesemonger if he or she has put in an order. This is one cheese you won’t want to miss, and it’s worth every penny (I paid $24 for my wheel). And when you do get your hands on it, pair it with a Riesling, Gewürztraminer or a malty beer, per Andy’s suggestions in his interview with The House Mouse last month.

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Do you know how you can make a good cheese taste even better? Let it sit out on the counter overnight. That’s what ol’ preggo brain here did last night, and the outcome wasn’t bad like I had feared. Actually, it makes sense – if all cheese are supposed to left at room temperature an hour before serving to heighten their flavors, 10 hours at room temperature must make a cheese 10 times as good, right?

Anyway, the cheese we’re talking about today is Gruyère, the Swiss cow’s-milk cheese that, to me, is Swiss cheese. Though you won’t usually find holes in Gruyère like the commodity “Swiss cheese” features, this is the quintessential Swiss cheese – sweet, nutty and rustic. And while cave-aged versions, such as the 15-month one I bought, typically have a stronger flavor, I found my piece to be pleasingly light and creamy on the tongue. If I had a loaf of crusty bread around, I could have had the entire wedge of Gruyère and bread for breakfast and be totally satisfied. Alas, I’m eating oatmeal. Yawn.

Gruyère melts well, so you’ll find it in a range of dishes, like gratins, quiches and soups. But to me, Gruyère means one thing – fondue. I’m all for trying new cheese combinations when making fondue, but the classic version features Gruyère as a main ingredient, and you can’t argue with that kind of star power. No matter how you prepare it, though, enjoy Gruyère with a light wine wine such as Riesling or a sparkling apple cider.

Colleen’s recent jaunt to New England for the inaugural Vermont Cheesemakers Festival made me very jealous, of course, but as the stars would have it, I was about to embark on a cheesy road trip myself later that same week. Well, really I was going to Madison, Wis., for a friend’s wedding, but I managed to put cheese-shopping on the agenda, and my home state did not disappoint me. I was able to find some cheese that have eluded me here in Minnesota and find some fabulous new cheese shops in the process.

A cranky toddler made a stop in Osseo necessary, and my lovely husband managed to find a cheese shop right off the highway where we could disembark for a short break. (How lucky am I!) I was pleasantly surprised to find that Foster Cheese Haus wasn’t your typical Wisconsin side-of-the-road shop aimed at tourists (not that I don’t love those shops, too), but it had a wide selection of artisanal Wisconsin cheeses from well-known cheesemakers like Carr Valley, Crave Brothers and Roth Kase. I was thrilled to see a wheel of Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar, a cheese that had recently come to the Twin Cities but had sold out before I could get my hands on a piece. No fear – Dean at Foster Cheese Haus was happy to share samples and wrap up a wedge for me.

Located near Blue Mounds, Wis., Bleu Mont Dairy produces excellent cheeses from the organic milk of pasture-grazed cows. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner learned to make cheese from his father, who learned to craft cheese in Switzerland. Lehner’s dad certainly taught him well – the raw-milk bandaged cheddar (left) is a delight. Almost candy-like in sweetness, this cheese has a smooth texture (no crystals, like you’ll often find in aged cheeses) and a nuttiness that comes off very cleanly. Paired with a lager or off-dry riesling (as per Wine Spectator’s recommendation), the cheese makes a wonderful addition to a salad course or even dessert.

After tasting the cheddar, Dean also introduced me to a new addition to his cheese case – an aged gouda (right) also from Bleu Mont Dairy. Since I never refuse a sample, I eagerly snacked on this 10-month gouda and liked it so much I brought home a piece, too. Fans of Prima Donna Gouda will definitely enjoy this cheese, though the flavor isn’t exactly the same. The creamy paste is both sweet and nutty, and the flavor would hold up well in fondue.

Lehner regularly sells his cheeses at Madison’s Dane County Farmers’ Market, and you can also find them at cheese shops throughout Wisconsin, such as Foster Cheese Haus and Fromagination in Madison. If you don’t make it to Wisconsin, though, don’t fret. An e-mail to Lehner can go a long way to getting these delicious cheeses into your refrigerator.

One of the advantages of our “100 Great Cheeses” challenge is that I’ve been “forced” to try some classics that I might otherwise have overlooked in my cheese case browsing. This week’s cheese, Le Brin of France’s Rhone region, is one of those. Despite its reddish-orange rind that resembles a stinkier washed rind cheese, Le Brin is a mild, delicately flavored cheese. This semi-soft cows-milk cheese has a chewy bite when cool, but softens to a thick, creamy consistency as it warms to room temperature. It is rich and buttery, slightly sweet with soft yeasty notes.

Le Brin was a crowd-pleasing choice before Friday night’s family dinner. We had it with Riesling, but I’d probably go with a more crisp, less sweet wine next time.

If you say “Wisconsin” to any person from any part of the country, the word he or she is likely to say back to you is “cheese.” Yes, Wisconsin is known for its cheese, and in case you can’t remember that fact on its own, Wisconsinites wear foam cheese-shaped hats to remind you. (Mine proudly rests on my desk, taunting my Viking-fan co-workers year-round.) But while many cheeses that hail from Wisconsin are your typical commodity bunch of cheddars and colbys, once in a while you’ll taste a cheese that makes you realize that Wisconsin is not only known for its cheese, but it knows how to do cheese right.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, made by the Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wis., is a shining example. A raw cow’s-milk cheese made in the style similar to French Alpine cheeses, Pleasant Ridge Reserve deserves the kudos it has received from the American Cheese Society, which gave it the Best in Show award not once, but twice, and from the U.S. Cheese Championship, which awarded it U.S. champion. The milk from the pasture-fed cows starts being processed into cheese minutes after it leaves the cow, and the cheese is only produced in the warm months when the pasture grasses fill the fields of southwestern Wisconsin. After being aged and bathed in brine in limestone caves for four months, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve is ready for tasting. The result is a sweet, grassy, firm cheese that offers a surprising salty finish.

Paired with a Riesling or Vouvray, Pleasant Ridge Reserve rightly earns its place on a cheeseboard, alongside a salad or as an accompaniment to a fresh fruit platter. I chose a German Riesling – mostly because the label matched the pretty tulips I bought at Trader Joe’s minutes earlier – and found the wine’s sweetness to be an elegant match for the cheese. Not too sweet or cloying, the wine brought out Pleasant Ridge Reserve’s tender grassiness – a wonderful after-dinner treat on a warm Minnesota spring evening.

Since Jill is our resident Wisconsin expert, I’m working on becoming the Vermont cheese guru — as several Vermont cheesemakers are represented on the Wine Spectator list, and they seem to be more readily available in DC area cheese shops than in the Midwest. (One of these days I’ll actually get up there myself, but in the meantime you can join me in living vicariously through Cookography‘s Vermont cheese tour. ) If you do spot Vermont’s fine cheeses in your local shops, definitely give them a try. The crisp Vermont air adds something to our East Coast dairy state’s milk that you generally only find in Europe’s Alpine cheeses. This week’s Vermont Ayr is a fine example.

This semi-hard aged cheese has the sweet, musty aroma of ripe pineapple, and the sweetness is evident in the flavor as well. The Crawford Family Farm’s small herd of heritage-breed Ayrshire cows – meet a few of their cows on the website – graze on a blend of clover and alfalfa, and produce a high quality, high butterfat (and rBST-free) raw milk used solely for their signature cheese, Vermont Ayr. The Crawfords, three siblings who took up cheesemaking to save the family dairy farm, carefully choose only the highest quality milk from a select few of the cows for each batch of Vermont Ayr. The curds are cave-aged three months, resulting in a sweet, slightly nutty, smooth cheese. Delicious on its own, or with a crisp Riesling that balances the cheese’s sweet notes.

I understand the FDA has a purpose, and a very important one at that, but it does stand in the cheese lover’s way sometimes. It prohibits those delectable, young raw-milk cheeses from entering our fair country, so Americans have to travel abroad to taste some of the very finest cheeses, like France’s Reblochon. I have no plans to travel to France anytime soon, so instead I’ll make do with Fleur des Alpes, a pasteurized version of the French classic, and then dream of the time Colleen and I can spend two weeks in France gorging on forbidden cheeses. (If anyone would like to fund said trip, please contact us immediately.)

Hailing from the lush Savoie region of France, Fleur des Alpes is a nutty cow’s-milk cheese that’s easy to enjoy. Yes, it has that earthy, funky smell most washed-rind cheeses emanate, but that’s partly what makes it so good. That stinky-cheese smell usually signals to me that this cheese means business. After sitting at room temperature for an hour or two, Fleur des Alpes doesn’t develop a runny interior, but the toothy, even rubbery texture is still pleasing in the mouth. Paired with a hearty bread and some fruit, the cheese would be a satisfying snack before a hike – or a serious day of shopping.

As for wine pairings, Wine Spectator recommends a dry Riesling from Alsace or Austria. Steven Jenkins suggests a fruity red for its counterpart, Reblochon, so I assume one would also be suitable with Fleur des Alpes. The butteriness of the cheese might be too much when paired with a sweet wine. If you want to add a sweet note to your snack, choose fresh berries as an accompaniment.