A Slice Above

Wisconsin cheese dominated the 2016 world championships. Why aren't we surprised?

Tom Giffey

The claim that Wisconsin makes the best cheese in the world isn’t just idle boasting: It’s objectively true, at least if you agree with the results of the 2016 World Champion Cheese Contest, which was held earlier this year in Madison. At the contest, which drew nearly 3,000 entries from 23 countries and 31 states, the top prize went to Roth Grand Cru Surchoix from Emmi Roth USA in Fitchburg. It was the first time since 1988 that a Wisconsin-made cheese had won the first prize at the biennial competition, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association said.

So what is Grand Cru Surchoix? Its makers describe it as “an original alpine-style unmatched in America.” (Considering the award, that’s not just marketing hyperbole.) It’s a smear-ripened hard cheese, which means beneficial bacteria are rubbed on the rind before the cheese is aged. Grand Cru has been compared with Gruyere, a hard cheese that originates in Switzerland.

“The cheese is stinky, meaty, rich and deep. It’s a 10-note cheese and deserves to be the centerpiece of your cheeseboard.” – cheese blogger Jeanne Carpenter about Grand Cru Surchoix, the Wisconsin-made 2016 World Champion Cheese

Grand Cru is available in three varieties: Original, Reserve, and Surchoix (which means “top quality” in French). Wisconsin-based cheese aficionado Jeanne Carpenter, who runs the Cheese Underground blog, notes that Grand Cru Surchoix is produced in imported copper vats from Switzerland and aged for at least nine months on wooden boards. “The cheese is stinky, meaty, rich and deep,” she writes. “It’s a 10-note cheese and deserves to be the centerpiece of your cheeseboard.”

But even if your cheeseboard is reserved for the best Wisconsin varieties, it will be crowded: Wisconsin cheeses took first place in 38 of the 110 categories in the word competition – that’s nearly half of the 83 gold medals won by U.S. cheeses overall! For the sake of comparison, the No. 2 nation was Switzerland, which won nine gold medals.

Wisconsin cheese makers produced the best aged Cheddars, the best bandaged Cheddars, and the best Colbys (which stands to reason, considering Colby was invented in Colby). Wisconsinites also took home gold for baby Swiss, part-skim mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, mild provolone, ricotta, feta, Havarti, string cheese, brick Muenster, queso fresco, goat’s milk cheese, and sheep’s milk cheeses – not to mention flavored butter and cow’s milk yogurt. We could go on, but you get the idea!

Another notable Wisconsin success was close to home for the Chippewa Valley. Marieke Gouda of Thorp swept first, second, and third place in the flavored Gouda category with its caraway, truffle, and burning mélange varieties, respectively. Dutch immigrant cheesemaker Marieke Peterman’s team also won a silver and a bronze in other Gouda categories. Meanwhile, cheese maker Shawn Sadler of AMPI in Jim Falls won first place for marbled cheese curds – which presumably were just squeaky enough for the judges to give them a near-perfect score.