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Who makes the world’s greatest cheese? This year, it’s Wisconsin

Wisconsin is America’s cheese capital — the only state whose citizens proudly wear foam-rubber headgear made to resemble their favorite fermented milk product.

Yet despite the Badger State’s cheese chauvinism, experts appeared taken by surprise when a Wisconsin-made cheese took top honors at the World Championship Cheese Contest this past March at Madison’s Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center.

The Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, produced by Emmi Roth USA at the company’s plant in Monroe, Wisconsin, was the first American-made cheese to snag the award since 1988. The cheese competed against 15 other finalists (culled from 2,948 entries from 31 states and 23 countries) and earned best of class in the smear ripened hard cheeses category with a score of 99.8 out of 100.

The Grand Cru, named such as a reference to the official French term for top-quality wines, is a far cry from the bland American and colby cheeses on which most Wisconsin residents were first weaned. What does it take to make the world’s best cheese and, perhaps more importantly, what does that cheese taste like?

According to Rob Frie, director of operations for the Swiss-owned company’s Monroe and Platteville plants, the cheese is as much the result of having the right “growing” conditions as it does the proper attention from skilled Wisconsin cheesemakers to help manage the cheese’s development.

“Our farmers have to first produce great cow’s milk, and they do,” Frie says. “Like winemaking, cheesemaking is subject to the rigors of terroir. In fact, we’ve seen cows that have gotten into an onion patch in which the onion flavor comes through in the milk.”

Fortunately, no onion flavors or aromas appeared in the locally sourced milk used to produce the Grand Cru Surchoix, which can be best described as a Gruyere-style cheese. The hard cheese’s unique character traits are the result of the techniques applied to the production and aging of the cheese, including application of just the right bacteria to the large wheels curing in Emmi Roth’s Green County cheese cellar.

Once the hard cheese has been produced, the process begins with the daily washing of the rind in a bacteria bath for the first two to three weeks of the cheese’s life, Frie says. The cheese resides on a bed of red spruce planks, another holdover from the traditional Swiss cheesemaking process.

“As the cheese gets established, you have millions of good bugs doing their thing on the cheese’s surface and overpowering the bad bugs,” Frie notes.

The process continues, moving to every-other-day washes for the subsequent three weeks, followed by a final wash with salt water to inhibit mold growth and end the active bacterial process. The cheese is than allowed to age for a minimum of nine months.

“ The bacteria helps cheese age and develop its flavor profile from the outside in while it sits in an environmentally controlled room designed to optimize bacteria growth,” says Frie. “The lactose in the cheese breaks down inside and that contributes to the curing and aging process.”

High-quality cheeses get taste-tested and flavor profiled throughout the aging process, which in the case of the award-winning Surchoix lasted 14 months. Emmi Roth only produced 20,000 pounds of the award-winning cheese, Frie says.

What does the world’s best cheese taste like? Even fans of 10-year-old cheddar and other aged cheeses will find the Surchoix a unique experience.

The cheese arrives dressed in a black rind, which contributes to its character and flavor. The overall color is aged ivory, which gets significantly darker as it gets closer to the rind where it was subject to higher levels of bacterial inoculation during the aging process.

“The judges commented that the cheese had a lot of complex flavors, but that it was well-balanced and nicely toned,” Frie says. “There weren’t a lot of peaks and valleys amid the flavor components and it has a nice mouthfeel.”

At 14 months, complexity becomes the cheese’s key driver. We found earthy notes and the suggestion of burnt caramel on the back palate. Despite the cheese’s hard texture, the overall sensation indeed led to a creamy mouthfeel and flavors that gained intensity closer to the rind. One can almost taste the cellar ambience in the rind itself, which adds immensely to Surchoix’s dimension and charm.

The only downside, in fact, is that given the cheese’s relatively limited production, it’s getting harder to find since it won the award.

Specialty cheese shops like Madison’s Fromagination and grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods tend to carry the cheese, which retails for between $19.99 and $24.99 per pound depending on where you shop. But demand is quickly exceeding supply, Frie says.

“Next year we’ll make more,” he adds.