A Timeless Tale: Merlot BellaVitano®

April 4th, 2022

Merlot Wheels Rack

A fourth-generation family-owned and -operated company steeped in the great American tradition, the Sartori® team brings their passion, creativity, and ingenuity for cheesemaking to the East Main Caves every day. That’s where the Sartori® (originally S&R Cheese Corp.) journey began, and that’s where a match made in culinary heaven was born – Merlot BellaVitano®.

The Start

The highly decorated American original BellaVitano®, and indeed all Sartori® cheeses, starts with daily deliveries of fresh, top-quality milk from local family farms. Master Cheesemaker Ken Kane credits the farmers’ “attention to detail and care for their animals and the land upon which they live” for ensuring Sartori® cheese comes from the best milk.

Next up are culture blends, a result of Sartori®’s unending quest for cheesemaking knowledge. As explained by Master Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson, one of only two women in the US to have earned the distinction, “We want to know everything about cheese and cheesemaking. This is a goal that can’t be obtained, but it makes one’s life work fulfilling. Thus, we’ve become starter culture experts – how they impact the flavor and texture of cheese as well as the cheesemaking process. Our starter cultures give each variety of cheese its unique flavor personality. Each vat of cheese must be crafted right from the start, and then in the aging process, the starters will speak.”

From there, a microbial enzyme called rennet is added to bind the protein together; the curd and whey are separated, gently stirred and heated, and moved to the finishing table; and the whey is removed. The curd is pressed into hoops, then removed and placed into a salt brine, then carefully transported to the curing room where the BellaVitano® is kept at a controlled temperature and humidity level. Milk components vary seasonally in Wisconsin, so the team is tasked with making sure the marrying phase of ingredients to cheese is the same, regardless of the time of year. Kane stresses the importance of the curing process’s time and duration, saying it’s an integral part of ensuring a consistently pleasurable and versatile cheese experience.

The Middle

Once the BellaVitano® has reached the optimal age, it is lovingly hand-finished, either by soaking or rubbing. Dry rubbing takes a specially sourced and curated blend of herbs and spices and a small amount of liquid to allow the rub to adhere to the surface of the wheel. These include favorites such as the Garlic & Herb and Black Pepper BellaVitano®s. The soaking process, on the other hand, involves time in one or more carefully selected wines, spirits, beers, balsamic vinegars, or brines that accentuate and enhance the cheese’s natural flavor.

Merlot BellaVitano® is finished by placing it into wine and soaking it to accentuate the cheese’s flavor and texture with the nuance from the merlot. Sartori®’s cheesemakers hand-soak each wheel, allowing them to rest for several days under refrigeration temperatures, then allow the wheels to dry before final quality check and packaging.

“Even after packaging, flavor migration from the merlot continues,” says Hodgson. “This is really a second maturation period, allowing the bold merlot to enhance but not overpower the cheese, which is the true star. Our cheesemakers are creating edible art every day.”

Merlot Wheel Soaked

This is when Sartori®’s passion for quality cheesemaking truly comes to fruition. The master cheesemakers went through dozens of wines before they found the vintage that worked best with the BellaVitano®, accentuating its creamy texture and delivering a deep and pleasing finish. Kane put it best: “The merlot complements the BellaVitano® in all the right ways. It opens up more fruity attributes of the cheese from the dark fruits of the wine, and it balances nicely against the creamy mouthfeel and slight nuttiness of the BellaVitano®.”

The End

With true uniqueness and flexibility, Merlot BellaVitano® finds a delicious home either as a snacking cheese or in one of the many mouthwatering recipes we recommend. As one of our favorite cheeses, it stands out and enhances everything from cheesecake to pancakes or crumbled over greens with a light vinaigrette, like this grilled chicken salad recipe by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Beautiful in color and taste, there’s truly nothing like your first experience. Notes of plum and berry make the one-of-a-kind cheese especially easy to devour as part of a charcuterie board with dried nuts and fruit and crusty bread, or paired with chocolate.

Master Cheesemaker Apprentice Erin Radtke says her family’s favorite recipe pairing is the Spaghetti Carbonara with Pepper-Coated Bacon, featuring the Merlot BellaVitano®. The surprisingly light yet full-flavored sauce combines Nueske’s zesty applewood smoked bacon and grated BellaVitano® with the carbonara’s egg mixture to create a truly crowd-pleasing, fresh and hearty meal.

Kane’s favorite pairing is to top his medium rare steaks with a Merlot BellaVitano® mixture. Just shred the BellaVitano® and mix it with a small amount of cream cheese to bind it, at about a 90/10 ratio. If possible, smoke in a pellet smoker at 450°F for five minutes a side, then transfer to a high heat cast iron with butter to reverse sear for less than a minute per side and remove. “Simply tent the cooked steak with the BellaVitano® mixture for five minutes for the perfect medium rare complement,” says Kane. “The merlot has that dark fruit note and acidity that enhances the savory flavor of the meat fantastically.”

For beverage pairings, our culinary experts recommend a Shiraz, Pinot Noir, or dry Merlot. The drier wines punctuate the BellaVitano®’s creaminess and enhance its finish. Likewise, hoppier beers such as IPAs and drier pilsners are a delicious complement to the BellaVitano® and its food pairings, or you can choose to go with a wheat beer to mirror the semisweet accent of the merlot. Feel free to examine our guide to cheese pairings for more ideas.

For entertaining guests, raising a recipe to the next level, or just a quick snacking moment to yourself, nothing compares to the deeply flavorful Merlot BellaVitano® for its pairing flexibility and price point. Whichever food, beverage, or dessert you choose to complement it, know the experience will be elevated by this Sartori family favorite. It’s our mission to make sure every wheel of every variety of Sartori® cheese is imbued with care, craftsmanship and exceptional flavor.

Ready to make your taste buds say, “I do?” Find Merlot BellaVitano® near you and taste the perfect union of rich, creamy cheese to the berry and plum notes of Merlot.

BV Lifestyle