Swiss and Austrian cheesemakers took top honors Thursday at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, beating out some 2,300 entries from 20 countries ranging from Argentina to Switzerland.
Cheesemaker Cedric Fragniere took top honors with a Gruyere that judges lauded for its creamy texture and light hint of herbs.
"It's very smooth, it's aromatic and it has a very clean cheese flavor," said Bill Schlinsog, one of 30 judges. "It has a burst of flavor and then it settles down very nicely in the mouth."
Fragniere didn't attend the judging but will be invited to a banquet in his honor next month in Madison.
The runner-up also was Swiss. Andeer Sennerei of Andeer, Switzerland, took second place with a smear-ripened hard cheese called an Andeerer Traum.
Third place went to Alois Pesendorfer of Gmunden, Austria, whose Gmundner Berg Premium won in the category of open class semisoft cheese.
To the cheesemakers who participate, this contest - touted as the largest international cheese and butter competition in the world - is serious business.
After Swiss cheesemaker Christian Wuethrich won in 2006 with an Emmentaler, he sold out his remaining stock of the Swiss cheese so fast he had to buy some back from his exporter to supply the local customers who make up most of his business.
"We faced a shortage because we were not prepared for this," he said.
Still, Wuethrich raised the price of his Emmentaler only nominally, from $8 per pound to $9, because he said the local market wouldn't support a larger increase.
Other winners have seen similar spikes in demand following a world title.
Meint Scheenstra, a cheesemaker from The Netherlands, won the championship six years ago with an aged gouda. U.S. sales of his product jumped 10 percent to 20 percent the following year, he said.
Thursday's judging was the culmination of a three-day competition that featured 77 categories of cheese - from flavored soft cheeses to hard, mixed-milk cheeses and everything in between - and two categories of butter.
Judges from 14 nations awarded gold medals to the winners in each class Tuesday and Wednesday. The finalists were then in the running for top honors.
Wisconsin entries won 21 of the 79 categories, by far the best showing of any state or nation. New York was second with six wins, including in both butter categories. Idaho was third with five gold medals, tying Canada and The Netherlands.
The judges took several minutes with each finalist, grading it for flavor, body, texture and color. The evaluation process was similar to wine tasting - judges in white lab coats swirled each sample in their mouths, searched for nuanced characteristics and then spat the sample into a garbage can. Some wiped their tongues with napkins between samples.
Elsa Emanuela Cugola, an Italian judge, said the winning Gruyere was by far the best cheese of the 77 gold medalists. The milk gave it subtle notes of sweetness that evolved nicely into a light aftertaste of herbs, Cugola said.
"It has a uniform taste, balanced with just the right percentage of salt and cow's milk," she said. "It was the best, no question."