In the Central Loire Valley, I’ve toured fabulous chateaux, strolled in their meticulous gardens, and even caught sight of swans (swans!) on the glittering ribbon of river. But when I think of this region, my mind wanders not to these luxuries but to something much humbler: goat cheese, plus wine.
Valençay is a soft goat’s milk cheese that originated in the towns of Berry and Touraine. It’s made with raw whole milk, and after culturing, molding, and draining, the surface is coated with salt and wood ash, which raises the pH and supports production of the bloomy rind.
Cheeses can be sold as soon as the 11th day provided the rind has sufficiently developed, but three weeks is a more common ripening period. The finished cheese is a 200 to 300 gram almost-pyramid with a wrinkly natural blue-gray rind and white paste. Valençay was granted AOC status in 1998 and has been an AOP since 2004.
The legend of Valençay
Legend suggests that Napoleon was responsible for the cheese’s truncated shape. Seeing the cheese at Valençay castle upon his return from a disastrous military campaign in Egypt, he used his sword to knock the tops off the little white pyramids. Another story posits that the shape is a nod to the curious bell tower of the church of Saint-Sylvain in Levroux, France. My hunch is that flat-bottomed, versus pointed, molds sit and stack more easily for draining. Practicality over romance.
The cheese’s short affinage means it cannot be imported into the U.S., where raw milk cheeses must by law be aged 60 days or longer. Since only raw milk can be used for Valençay AOP, pasteurized Valençay style cheeses are sometimes marketed under a name like Tradition de Berry.
Similar French cheeses include Selles-sur-Cher, Sainte-Marie de Touraine, Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, and American cheeses Haystack Peak, Humboldt Fog, and The Thin Red Line (although these latter two have a layer of ash in the center, too).
The taste of Valençay
Valençay’s bright interior has a fresh, flowery, grassy flavor and lightly grainy texture. The raw milk versions tend to taste somewhat earthier and more buttery than the pasteurized cheeses, but both have a tangy quality from the cheese’s firm acidity. The edible rind is a nice counterpoint, with its earthy, goaty, and lightly mushroomy aromas. As with most cheeses, the texture and flavor bloom when it’s served at room temperature.
Here are wines I’d reach for in my cellar, and why.
Loire Sauvignon blanc
It’s a cliché that “what grows together, goes together,” but in the case of Valençay, it’s hard to go wrong with Loire Valley Sauvignon blanc.
Sancerre blanc is a classic choice here. The grape’s grassy flavors and sharp acidity mirror these qualities in the cheese. The wine rarely sees much oak aging, so retains shiny crispness, although Sauvignon blanc’s inherent heft and savoriness keep it from feeling like a trivial quaff. Other Loire Sauvignon blancs are similarly copacetic: Pouilly-Fumé, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, and Touraine.
Sauvignon blancs from warmer regions like New Zealand may have such ripe flavors that they can overwhelm the cheese’s delicate milky qualities — but it can work if I think of it as serving the cheese with a plate of tropical fruit.
Bordeaux blanc, heavy on Sauvignon blanc but often mixed with Sémillon, is generally weightier than its Loire cousin, but, especially if it has a few years of age, I would pair it with Valençay made from raw milk.
Following the ”grow together” thread, I would also reach for Rosé or Red Loire wines, generally those made from Cabernet Franc or Pinot noir. Another Loire choice, slightly less common, is Pineau d’Aunis, a lively, peppery light red wine with vanishing tannins and assertive acidity.
Red wines with firm acidity, herbaceousness, medium weight, and crisp texture are good dance partners for Valençay. That makes me think of Bardolino.
Bardolino, from Italy’s Veneto, near Lake Garda, is a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, and sometimes a touch of other permitted varieties. Bardolino tends to be lower alcohol, often around 12.5%, with fresh red fruit flavors and zippy acidity. The tannins are modest.
Bardolino Chiaretto, the light pink wine made there, is another good option.
Ranging farther across northern Italy for other “bold choice” reds with that same character, I think about Freisa and Ruché, from Piedmont. Both tend to be flowery and light-textured, with berry flavors that bloom in complement the cheese’s herbal notes.
Other cooler climate Italian reds, like Marzemino or Pinot noir from Trentino Alto-Adige, have bright cherry fruit notes and a breath of mountain flowers and herbs, all of which are beautifully complementary to Valençay cheese.
Original drawings by the author.