March 30, 2010
Ham is the Meryl Streep of the Easter table. Depending on the menu, it can alter appearances, switch flavor accents and even set a certain emotional mood at dinner.
While being a chameleon has its advantages both on the big screen and in the home kitchen, ham's innate changeability makes it hard to issue sweeping wine pairing suggestions. It depends on the saltiness or smokiness of the ham, the sweetness of the glaze, whether mustard is served on the side or not.
You can go in many different directions with the wine, as I learned by posing the question on two social media platforms, Facebook and Twitter. I received wine recommendations from folks across the country (plus one or two in the United Kingdom).
"Ham is salty, so it will make acidic wines taste fruitier, which is why Chablis and Beaujolais work," said Fiona Beckett, an English cheese and wine expert and author (matchingfoodandwine.com).
Riesling, naturally, is the choice of Nicholas Quille, winemaker and general manager of Pacific Rim, a winery in Washington's Columbia Valley that focuses on the variety.
"It is a great match with ham, and it is widely available," he noted. Quille also suggested Beaujolais, one of the Cru bottlings; spatburgunder, the German name for pinot noir; Austrian gruner veltliner; and Spanish albarino.
For Kairos Cuilann des Rosiers, principal of WineIlluminati, a Seattle-based fine wine brokerage and consultancy, the choice is Alsatian pinot gris because of "the acidity, fruit and baker's spices always hanging out in the background."
Perhaps the most useful advice was also the most general: "Keep it light, fun, fresh and friendly, kind of like an Easter bonnet," wrote Alpana Singh, wine and spirits director for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which owns restaurants nationwide.
And, in that spirit, why not open more than one wine at your dinner? Put out a cluster of glasses and let people try a red, a white, a rose, a sparkling, with the ham you serve. See if over the banter of the holiday feast your family can reach an agreement on a winner.
Let me know which wine gets the Oscar for best performance at your table.
From white to red and back again We paired four whites and four reds with a sliced, smoky ham that had just enough salt to provide a spark without overwhelming the natural porky sweetness. Scores reflect how well each wine worked with the ham. Six of the eight wines scored higher with the ham than without.
2008 Robert Mondavi Fume BlancA classic Napa white, this wine scored well on its own but rose even higher with the ham. Flavors of apricot, pineapple and herbs made the ham taste sweeter and less salty. The "cat pee" nose is distinctive; no mistaking this for anything but sauvignon blanc. ✭✭✭ $20
2008 Hahn Syrah: This red from California's Central Coast has a zesty smell of raspberry and earth. The flavor is of berry, oak and earth with just enough tannin to focus the long finish. The ham tastes sweeter, the wine less astringent. ✭✭✭ $14
2007 Quivira Mourvedre Wine Creek Ranch: From Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley, a red fragrant with the scent of cedar, black pepper and earth. The flavor is deep, with touches of chocolate. The wine gives the ham a meatier profile. Tied for third with the next wine. ✭✭✭ $32
2007 Black Kite Pinot Noir Kite's Rest: On its own, this red from California's Anderson Valley scored highest. Easy to see why; an elegant expression of pinot noir with touches of smoke, wet moss and black cherry on the nose and a smooth cherry flavor deepened with notes of mushroom and earth. But the wine diminished the ham. ✭✭✭ $42
2008 Frogs Leap Chardonnay: A subtle Napa white with a nice touch of French-like minerality, this wine smelled, pleasantly, like fresh plaster. The flavor was fruity with a slight oaky sweetness overlaid with a tart crispness. Refreshing; accentuates the ham's flavor. ✭✭ $25
2008 Seven Hills Viognier Talcott Vineyard: A wine from Washington's Columbia Valley from a grape usually associated with the northern Rhone. The nose is a combo of fresh grass, pineapple and guava. The flavor is big, bold, tropical. Lush, but high acidity keeps the profile in check. The wine emphasizes the smokiness of the ham. ✭✭ $20
2007 Trimbach Riesling: This Alsatian stalwart is crisply austere, with a touch of lemon and apple. Neither hurts nor helps the ham. ✭✭ $18
2006 Domaine de Nizas Carignan: From the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southeastern France, a rather tight red that makes the ham taste too harsh. ✭ $19
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.