A member of the Swiss cheese family, Gruyere is a rich, hard, cow’s milk cheese with a nutty, slightly sweet flavor, sometimes with notes of mushroom. Although all types of Gruyere share certain characteristics, they vary slightly in taste and character based on cheese age and producer. So when choosing the best type, consider what your tastes are and for what you will be using it. Younger cheeses, for example, tend to be softer with a milder flavor; more aged varieties are harder with bolder flavors. As a general rule, Gruyere d’Alpage is widely considered to be the finest quality. Outside of Switzerland, the best places to find high-quality varieties typically are in cheese and specialty shops or by mail order.
Gruyere carries an appellation d'origine controlee (AOC), or protected origin designation, which indicates that only cheese made in the Gruyere Valley can be sold as Gruyere. While this assures a certain level of quality, there is still great variety amongst the types. The first step in choosing a the proper variety is to consider which flavors will work with the dish you are preparing. Flavors range from sweet and nutty to earthy and pungent. The cheese can be used in a variety of ways, including in sandwiches, in quiche, as a fondue ingredient, melted on French onion soup, or just eaten plain.
Cheese age plays a large part in the differences amongst this artisan cheese as well. Gruyere’s earthy, bold flavor deepens with age, so if you prefer a mellow cheese, opt for a younger cheese. Younger cheeses are softer as well, making them ideal for melting; aged varieties are harder, with slight crystallization.
There are three main classifications of Gruyere: Classic, Reserve and d'Alpage. Classic is a younger cheese that has been aged a minimum of five months. The Reserve variety is an aged, older cheese of the best rounds that have been aged for 10 to 16 months. Some reserve varieities are cave aged, which gives them a toasted flavor after 12 months. Finally, although Gruyere d’Alpage is only aged for 5 to 10 months, it is considered to be the finest variety of this type of cheese. Made only from special Tarines cow milk, the d’Alpage type is available only from April or May to October, making it a seasonal delicacy.
You generally will find the best quality Gruyere in the best quality stores. If your city or town has a cheese monger or fromagerie, then make that your first stop. Their products typically will be fresher and of higher quality than what you'll find at the supermarket. Additionally, the people at the cheese store may be better able to help you find a variety that suits your tastes, needs, and budget. Often they will let you try samples to help you decide. For a fun evening, select a few different kinds and host a cheese tasting to determine your favorite. If you do not have a specialty store nearby, another option for finding the best quality and variety is by mail order.