Manchego is undeniably Spain’s most famous cheese. Rivaling Dutch Gouda and Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano as a premier international culinary ambassador, Manchego accounts for more than a third of all the cheese produced in Spain.
Unsurprisingly, at cheese counters across the United States, the phrase, “I’d like a piece of Manchego” has become the equivalent of, “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay,” which is to say there are a lot of commercialized, generic examples out there.
The challenge is to find the elite cheeses among the many Manchegos on the market. You can start by seeking out Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheeses, the raw-milk versions of which are labeled “artisan.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, their stateside numbers have dwindled somewhat due to supply chain interruptions, not to mention a decline in the number of young people taking up traditional shepherding—sadly, a more serious, long-term dilemma.
Manchego’s raw material, sheep’s milk, can boast double the fat and 50% more protein than cow’s milk, promising a richer cheese with greater potential for flavor development.
The finest Manchegos have a solid backbone of creamy, mildly sheepy butterfats and an inherent caramellike sweetness. Toothsome, complex and balanced, they feature herbal, grassy, fruity, nutty, toasty and meaty aromas and loads of umami—think almonds, Brazil nuts, roasted lamb and buttered popcorn. With age, they develop more earthy, savory, funky flavors. Bittersweet and peppery or piquant notes, aka bite or sharpness, can also emerge over time.
The Manchego PDO zone, comprising four provinces of the Castilla-La Mancha region to the south and east of Madrid, is primordial sheep country—a high, arid plain where similar cheeses have been made for thousands of years. In the more modern era, Manchego was first mentioned in Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel Don Quixote, which explains why its authentication label has a picture of the epic’s protagonists on horse and donkey, with sheep grazing nearby.
Most export Manchegos hit their markets aged three to nine months; lately, the older ones have become more scarce. The good news is they reach their peak around six months. Like a wine that’s fruity and juicy when young, a Manchego will gradually lose its fruit and brightness, become gratably hard and, ultimately, musty.
David Gibbons is co-author of Mastering Cheese.
dibruno.com; $12 for 8 ounces
An outstanding raw-milk number aged six to nine months, it takes on nice tang, which begins to evolve to a peppery, sharp bite balanced by underlying sweetness and pronounced earthy notes.
Manchego DOP Aurora
igourmet.com; $10 for 7.5 ounces
At six months, it’s starting to dry out a bit but is still quite soft. Savory and buttery, it offers lingering notes of wild grass, fresh-mown hay and nuts, with emerging caramel and a bright overall impression. A hefty pasteurized cheese that dances lightly on its toes.
Artisan Raw Milk Manchego DOP Dehesa de los Llanos
igourmet.com; $11 for 7.5 ounces of the 4-month; $18 for 7.5 ounces of the 6-month
The 4-month is a middle-of-the-road Manchego in the best sense. Semihard, it delivers underlying buttery sweetness and develops a nice lip-smacking tang, leading to earthy notes and a well-integrated finish. The 6-month tilts toward savory, featuring nutty and grassy notes, emerging sheepy and bittersweet flavors, all while retaining ample butter and fruit.
DiBruno Bros. Manchego
dibruno.com; $8 for 8 ounces
Semisoft and relatively mild, a recent sample had good sweet-savory balance and representative butterfat, quickly revealing a nutty trajectory.
El Trigal Artisan Raw Milk Manchego DOP
wholefoodsmarket.com; $19 for 1 pound of the 6-month or igourmet.com; $11 for 7.5 ounces of the 8-month
This benchmark cheese from the Corcuera family creamery hits the sweet spot—literally and figuratively—at six months, and continues to shine through eight months and beyond. There’s moderately sheepy butterfat on the attack, followed by nutty and earthy notes, a grassy and slightly tangy undertone and a memorably savory aftertaste.
murrayscheese.com; $22 for 1 pound of the young; $25 for 1 pound of the 1-year
Murray’s offers two ages of its pasteurized Manchego, but declines to name the producer. The younger one is quite soft, relatively mild, sweet and mellow, with a slight tang and a hint of sheepiness in the finish. The 1-year is harder and more savory, yet still deliciously full of oozing butterfat. There’s some bittersweetness on the finish, though caramel flavors prevail.
Manchego DOP by Parra
igourmet.com; $16 for 7.5 ounces
Aged at least three months and sold under the La Oveja Negra label, it delivers a pronounced tang on the attack, with deep-roasted/cured meat, earth and Brazil nut notes. While hardening toward crumbly, it still manages to hold fast to its moist, buttery richness.