Many wines tested, few chosen as match for ham

VINTAGE POINT

March 28, 1993|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Marriages of wine and food are a lot like marriages of men and women. Many are compatible, many are incompatible, but precious few are truly idyllic.

Ham is especially challenging to pair up. Every year around Easter it goes around with a kind of a sweetly glazed look. That's not exactly easy for a wine to relate to, but it's not an insurmountable problem.

Sensing the calendar creeping up on Easter, we recently decided to play matchmaker for a meat. Armed with a modest wine budget and a 5-pound glazed ham, we spent every night for a week in search of the perfect mate for the traditional Easter main course.

(Note to editor: This explains the entry for liposuction on my expense ac

count.)

The old saw of white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat wasn't much help. Ham is a pink meat.

A literal mind might automatically prescribe rose as the solution and close the book right there, but wine and food matchups aren't quite that simple.

We found that ham is a flexible companion in some ways and rather prickly in others. It will get along well with certain reds, certain whites, certain roses and certain sparkling wines. It will also react cantankerously to some wines in each category.

First of all, ham is salty. There's also a bit of an acidic tanginess about it, as well as a good measure of fat, especially with a glazed ham. And a glaze brings its own complications, usually a light sweetness and a touch of clove or pineapple.

The first thing that became clear in -the tastings is that ham doesn't get along with oak. Just about any wine we tried that had a noticeable oak flavor became bitter when it reacted with the saltiness of the ham.

This was especially true with chardonnay. The 1991 Glass Mountain Chardonnay from California ($9), a good, inexpensive wine with a less-than-subtle oakiness, virtually ended up in a fistfight with the ham. The 1991 Basignani Chardonnay, an exceptionally fine $15 wine from Maryland, turned cranky and made the ham the butt of insults.

Tannin was also a problem with ham. The drying effect of this natural preservative in red wines is magnified by the saltiness of the ham. The result is that you want a glass of water more than another sip of wine.

We anticipated this interaction enough that we disqualified cabernet sauvignon right off. Ditto Rhone wines and the more concentrated Burgundies.

We did try the ham with a lighter red Burgundy, the 1989 Louis Jadot Savigny-les-Beaune ($22.49). It was an intensely flavorful, pleasant light wine, but still tannic enough that there was no magic.

Merlot showed more possibilities. The 1990 Columbia Crest Columbia Valley Merlot ($10.49) from Washington state got along quite cordially with ham. Of course, this is a light merlot, with little tannin to speak of. A more robust, complex version would have clashed.

Lighter did prove to be better when we tried Beaujolais with our well-worn hambone, which by now seemed to regenerate its meat every night.

Like most Beaujolais, the 1991 Chateau de la Chaize Brouilly ($10.49) had little tannin and no discernible oak -- just vibrant raspberry and cherry fruit flavors -- and plenty of racy acidity. For ham, this is just the right combination. My guess is that a lighter Beaujolais-Villages or a heavier Moulin-a-Vent wouldn't do as well. Ham is probably best suited for the lighter of the "cru" wines of Beaujolais -- Fleurie, Brouilly, Regnie and Chiroubles.

Curiously, two other light red wines didn't show nearly as well. The 1991 Chateau de Paraza Minervois Cuvee Speciale ($7) from the South of France was a fine wine in its own right, but turned flat and dull when paired with ham. The 1989 Bosco Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($6.69) from southern Italy was a good quaffing red but had an earthy quality that never connected with the food.

Strangely, the best of the red wines with ham was a California zinfandel. The 1991 Ravenswood Vintners Blend ($10) had a spicy quality that complemented the clove flavor in the glaze, and its buoyant fruitiness eclipsed any tannin or oak in the wine.

This doesn't mean you should run out and blindly stock up on red zinfandel for Easter. This Ravenswood worked because it was relatively light. Some "better," more concentrated zinfandels would have clashed. Ask your retailer to steer you to a light, fruity, lower-alcohol zin.

You would think there'd be a natural compatibility between ham and pink wine, but that didn't turn out to be true. A classic, austere, bone-dry Tavel from the Rhone, the 1991 Chateau de Tranquevenel ($13), was obliterated by the flavorful meat and its sweet glaze. The 1992 Vin Gris de Cigare didn't work because, for the first time, Bonny Doon blew a vintage of this usually reliable wine.

Where more celebrated pink wines stumbled, a humble white zinfandel shone. Nobody will ever mistake the 1992 DeLoach White Zinfandel ($9) for a great wine, but its racy freshness and slight sweetness made for a harmonious partnership with ham.

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