Ham or lamb? The perfect wines for your Easter feast

April 5, 2012

Easter marks the end of a 40-day fast for observant Christians. Mercifully, it's also one major holiday when turkey, a questionable reward for such penance to many, takes a back seat. Lamb and ham are the Easter table's more traditional centrepieces. They're also enjoyed widely on the occasion by non-Christians and those of us who managed to fast only from turkey.

While it's passé to adhere to strict wine-pairing rules (except maybe for the one about Port being just the thing for a dark-chocolate bunny), lamb and ham represent something of a fork in the wine road. Lamb strongly favours a hearty red, whereas ham tends to beg for something lighter. I offer a few suggestions below, but they hardly cover all the bases. Permit me to embellish with a few general thoughts that might serve as a shopping guide wherever you may live.

If you've sprung for regal rack of lamb, take a cue from the chef's playbook. Mint, a classic accompaniment often deployed in the form of sauce or jelly, is a hallmark nuance of cabernet sauvignon. Chilean cabernets tend to be particularly minty, though a cabernet-merlot blend from Bordeaux can be equally fitting. Cabernet's astringent tannins also soften beautifully in the presence of fat.

Leg of lamb roasted in the Mediterranean style, with garlic, rosemary or thyme, resonates with the characters of many Mediterranean reds, particularly those of the southern French Languedoc and Rhône regions, which are often imbued with notes of fresh herbs. Rioja from Spain and Portuguese reds dance well with leg, too.

Ham is another story, its pink hue emblematic of where it stands in the meatiness spectrum, somewhere between red and white. It's also salty, one reason cooks seek sweet balance in the form of a glaze or fruit accompaniment. Wine can play a similar role. If there's fruit on your pig, you may find bone-dry wines, especially full-bodied, tannic reds, jarring.

For ham, I'm fond of whites with bold fruitiness as well as mouth-watering acidity – riesling, gewurztraminer and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for example. Semillon and viognier, two whites with a honey-glaze quality, can be brilliant. But light-to-medium-bodied reds, such as crisp, berry-bright Beaujolais or Italian Valpolicella, work well, as do strawberry-nuanced rosés. Fruity ales (such as wheat beer) and cider make for good partners as well.

Terra Valentine Spring Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (California)

SCORE: 93 PRICE: $41.95

The vines at this mountain estate perched above Napa Valley are tended by Armando Hernandez, known to staff as the "goat whisperer." He herds 30 of the animals to help keep pests and unwanted herbs under control the natural way. This luscious red serves up ample fruit, chocolate, mineral and a blast of spice. Thank goats for this ideal lamb wine. Available in Ontario.

Piazzano Syrah Colli Toscana Centrale 2008 (Italy)

SCORE: 92 PRICE: $28.45 in Que.

Full-bodied, with a texture of seamless silk, this red mixes dark fruit, light spice and licorice with a funky nuance of sweaty leather. Seductive and perfect for leg of lamb. Available in small quantities in Quebec.

The Paring Red Wine 2007 (California)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $33.95

The Paring is the entry-level brand from Jonata, the acclaimed central-California estate owned by two wealthy businessmen who also control cult-wine superstar Screaming Eagle. Talented winemaker Matt Dees has crafted a lusty Bordeaux- style blend, brimming with dark fruits, smooth oak and espresso notes along with a juicy-spicy lift on the finish. Pair this Paring with rack of lamb. Available in Ontario and Alberta.

Tyrrell's Rufus Stone Shiraz 2009 (Australia)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95

A full-bodied yet lively red from McLaren Vale, it sings with berry, plum and chocolate, lifted by good acidity and a floral note, underpinned by fine tannins. It would be grand with lamb. Available in Ontario.

Monte del Fra Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2008 (Italy)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $15.95

Cherry, dark chocolate and herbs are carried on a smooth texture, with black pepper and cinnamon adding interest and depth. A good medium-full red for lamb or ham. Great value.

Château Peyrou Côtes de Castillon Merlot 2006 (France)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $15.95

The Côtes de Castillon district of Bordeaux on the right bank of the Dordogne River offers splendid bargains and this is a shining example. Mostly merlot, with 10-per-cent cabernet franc, it's medium-full-bodied and smooth, with plum and blackcurrant fruit, excellent ripeness, fine tannins for structure and a mineral lift on the crisp finish. It could swing between lamb and ham with ease. Available in Ontario.

Albino Armani Egle Valpolicella Ripasso 2008 (Italy)

SCORE: 88 PRICE: $15.95

Sweet candied cherry, lively acidity and a hint of spice render this medium-bodied red well-suited to ham. Available in Ontario.

Cave Spring Estate Bottled Gewurztraminer 2010 (Ontario)

SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95

This is an off-dry white, delivering opulent lychee fruit, white grape and a scent of roses along with a hint of fresh ginger. Try it with ham. Available in Ontario.

Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley 2010 (Australia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24.95

Medium-bodied and silky, with candied citrus, honey, a perfume-shop floral quality and a touch of pleasant bitterness. There's even a hint of clove, always nice with ham. $27.99 in B.C., $27.99 in Man., $24.10 in Que.

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