Wines for Your Easter Basket

Easter is a time to be with family and friends.  In my family Easter is both a religious time as well as a time to celebrate the arrival of spring.  In my chat with my mother the other day, snow is still on the ground in Ontario, Canada and she has bought the Easter ham.

Ham is the traditional main course served in many families on Easter Sunday, and the reason for this probably has to do with the agricultural way of life in old Europe. In late fall, usually in October, also known as the month of the Blood Moon, because it referred to the last time animals were slaughtered before winter, meats were salted and cured so they would last through the winter. Poorer people, who subsisted on farming and hunting, would often eat very sparingly in winter to assure their food supply would last. With the arrival of spring, there was less worry, and to celebrate the arrival of spring and of renewed abundance, they would serve the tastiest remaining cured meats, including hams.

Ham is a challenge to pair wine with.  Its relatively strong and salty flavors and garnishing of pineapple and cherries make it a quirky partner for dry table wines. But it can be done.  I like to serve Chenin Blanc or Pinot Gris with ham.  The acidic richness without the heavy oak of a Chardonnay or the sweetness of a Gewürztraminer lets the richness of the curing process shine.

Though often underestimated, Chenin Blanc can be a sensational selection for a meal. Off-dry styles of Chenin Blanc match well with recipes that are either piquant or slightly sweet matching well with the fruit and brown sugar adornments. Bone-dry interpretations such as the pungent and powerful Savennières from France can penetrate a dish’s richness and offer fresh balance in the mouth.

Pinot Gris is a pleasant and tasty grape that may remind you of cream and apples. It can be vinified either slightly sweet or dry. Pinot Gris is much less perfumed than a Gewürztraminer.  The greatest examples of Pinot Gris come from France’s Alsace, where Pinot Gris tends to be more concentrated.  Alsatian Pinot Gris are generally fermented dry with a little residual sugar to give a softer flavor. Most wines are bottled within a year of vintage to retain freshness.

I like to use wine in the cooking process, and I think the addition of wine in cooking ham helps keep it moist and, of course, adds more complexity.   I cook ham in the oven proof plastic bags you can get at the grocery store.  Pour a cup of the wine over the ham, seal the bag, vent it and then enjoy!  I like combining the wine with a little pineapple juice and reducing it to a rich sauce to pour over the plated slices.

Wine is always an important part of celebrations.  In the Jewish faith wine is so central to the Passover service that participants in the Seder, or evening meal,  on the first night of Passover, drink four small cups of it during the feast. By tradition, a fifth cup is left untouched for the Prophet Elijah. According to Jewish custom, this commandment is so important that even a poor person who depends on charity should sell his clothing if necessary to buy the Seder wine.  Several first-rate California producers make certified kosher wines of real quality, including Gan Eden, Weinstock and Hagafen.  I’ve recently tasted an Israeli wine, Golan Heights 2000 “Gamla” Galilee Merlot.  This wine is kosher for Passover, but you’ll find no hint of the traditional Manischewitz style in it. Very dark garnet in color, it offers pleasant aromas of ripe cherries with distinct herbal notes.  It will work well with lamb.

We may not have to sell our clothes to enjoy wine with dinner.  But wine always enhances the festive meals we create and share with family and friends.


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