Most of the time, matching food with wine is pretty straight forward. There are, however, some foods that are more difficult to match up. Turkey is a bit more problematic because it has both light, and dark meat. Oriental food is tough to match up because of all the different flavors.
The old rule – Red wine with red meat, and white wine with white meat (which was never really true in the first place), is not going to be much help here. The ‘hams’ on a swine are the upper back legs. The front upper legs are called the ‘shoulders’. Although pork is considered a white meat, ham is in a sort of limbo. It has qualities of both, and a few that are unique unto itself. Ham is both sweet and salty, with wonderful musky undertones. Depending on the cure, and how it is prepared, ham can be either delicate, or robust.
There are different kinds of hams, each with their own flavors and characteristics. The most common method of turning pork into ham is by wet curing and smoking. This is where the pork is brined and hung in a smokehouse, often for several months. County hams, true Virginia-cured hams, prosciutto, and some other ethnic hams are dry-cured, meaning they are rubbed with salts and nitrates to dry the ham out, thus preserving it, and concentrating the flavor. Then, they are smoked to put a good finish on them.
Ham is prepared in a myriad of ways, from fruity, pineappely Hawaiian ham, to sweet baked ham, and even robust ham, Green Beans and Potato Soup. In selecting a good wine match-up, we need to consider how we plan to prepare the ham.
Baked ham is the easiest. Usually glazed with some sweet syrupy mixture of honey, molasses, or brown sugar, they have a medium strong musky flavor, and are slightly sweet. Good pairings for this would be certain Pinot Noirs. Pinot Noir wines have a medium body with fruity, black cherry, currant and raspberry overtones. The bouquet is typically voluptuous and perfume-like. Burgundy wines are a type of Pinot Noir. Normally I would recommend a good french burgundy, but in this case, California has developed a much lighter, more fruit-forward version of Pinot Noir that is excellent with baked ham. New Zealand has also crafted a lighter version that is outstanding with ham. The true character of the grape seems to shine in the gentler versions. Another good choice is a dry Vouvray Chenin Blanc. Vouvray Chenin Blanc has a naturally high acidity that nicely compliments the sweet and musky flavors of baked ham. Vouvray ages well, and is one of the few wines that really benefit from long aging, up to 100 years in some cases. A good dry Vouvray will have a slightly floral bouquet, and fantastic flavors of nuts, honey, ginger, figs, and apples, with floral overtones. And lastly, it is hard to go wrong with a good Reisling, especially from Germany. Reisling is one of those wines that are very terroir-expressive, meaning that they have the heart and soul of the land that the grapes were grown on. Reislings from different vineyards can be very different. Although very good Reislings are produced in many areas of the world, for ham, I prefer a dry version from the Baden area of Germany. These are crisp, acidic, aromatic and fruity, with flavors of apples, grapefruit, peaches, honey, rose blossoms, and fresh cut green grass. It compliments baked ham very well. While Reislings age very well, I prefer the young wines. Aged Riesling develops a flavor I can only describe as petroleum-like, which I do not find to my liking. Many wine connoisseurs prize this quality, but I am not one of them. To each, their own…
With Hawaiian Ham, I strongly recommend a dry Sauvignon Blanc. While there are many very nice versions made in California, Africa, New Zealand, and other countries, in this case I really prefer the original versions from the Bourdeaux region of France. It is another of those wines that really show their terroir, and the Bordeaux wine retains a feral quality that the others lack. This quality makes the fruitiness of ham and pineapple stand out, and become very exciting. It brings out the exotic character of the meal. Sauvignon Blanc can be anything from very grassy, to very tropical, depending on where the grapes were grown. The Bordeaux wine has a slightly floral bouquet that is not overpowering, and slightly tart-tasting with flavors of fresh citrus, and light berries, with just a hint of acid bite. Another good pairing that will give a slightly different over-all experience is a good Beaujolais from the original Beaujolais province in France. Don’t get me wrong. I am not a frenchoholic or anything like that. There are many fine wines produced around the word, but in some instances, I have to give them credit. On wine, and food, the French know their stuff. Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape, and the french version produces a light, easy drinking red wine that is as close to an all-around wine as there is. This is the stereotypical french Bistro Wine. It is mildly acidic with flavors of banana and pears. It is also my favorite cooking wine for most dishes. Lastly, one of my favorite wines of all time, Gewurztraminer is a natural with any kind of ham. Gewurztraminer is a slightly sweet, very aromatic white wine with an almost aphrodisiac bouquet made up of lychee, rose petals, passion fruit, and other floral notes. Its flavor is slightly sweet, and alluring with subtle spicy notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, peaches, and citrus. It compliments any ham dish with style, elegance, and perhaps, a little mystery.
These are just suggestions, made from my personal experience and preferences. You may agree, or disagree with any or all of them. There are other wines that can be paired with ham, and each depends upon your personal choice. When trying to decide what wines go well with ham, as always, the bottom line is drink what you like. That’s the only test that really matters.