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Ham or Lamb? Well, at least there is no controversy over Easter wines

April 1, 2012

Traditional dishes generally become so for a reason, although some of those traditions may be a little more clouded in controversy than others. The Thanksgiving turkey is, of courses, a no-brainer. The birds were plentiful, the Pilgrims were hungry, and the rest is culinary history.

But what about Easter ham, not to mention Easter eggs, the Easter rabbit and the name “Easter” itself? As the highest of Christian holidays, Easter edibles must be steeped in religious tradition, right? Well, there’s a little more to this story. Let’s take the name of the holiday first.

According to Chicago food historian Dr. Bruce Kraig, the name “Easter” most likely comes from Eostre, the German/Anglo-Saxon goddess of the dawn/rebirth of the year. Her symbol was a rabbit that laid eggs (really). Eggs themselves, of course, represent rebirth and, for Christians, the end of the deprivation of the Lenten season. It’s a little bit of a mixed cultural metaphor, perhaps, but so far, so good.

The real problem seems to come down to the ham vs. lamb controversy. As a Jew, Jesus’ last supper was most likely a seder dinner to celebrate passover and if he had meat it was probably lamb. Jewish traditions coupled with the subsequent “lamb of God” metaphor make a pretty good case for the meat as the preferred Easter entree going forward.

Ham, however, seems a more practical choice due to its plentifulness throughout Europe. Historically, pigs slaughtered during winter then had their meat salted and smoked and should have been ready for spring consumption prior to the availability of fresh seasonal meats. But there are also Old Testament passages decrying pigs as “unclean” and not to be eaten, and some ultra-Christian sites cite ham as a “mockery” of the lamb of God and a violation of Christian tradition.

It all gets so complicated. Fortunately or unfortunately, we had already bought our Easter ham, a nice-looking naturally smoked one from Stoddard’s Country Grove Market in Cottage Grove, Wis., so our fate for this year was sealed. But whether your choosing ham or lamb or something entirely different, we’ve come up some wines we think will be a good match for whatever is sitting on the plate.

Rieslings aren’t always our first choice, especially since they too often tend toward the cloying German variety. But vintners consider the riesling one of the most versatile wines grapes available, one that can tend toward bright fruit as well as display subtle tendencies not always available in other varietals.

The 2010 NxNW Horse Heaven Hills Riesling ($12) from the Pacific Northwest strikes a balance between both, with honey on the palette and a floral nose, both boasting characteristics of tropical fruit and minerality. Closer to home, the gold-medal winning Wollersheim White Riesling ($10) from Prairie du Sac, Wis., is also fragrant and floral, but with a little sweeter palate. Its touch of elegance makes it a good dessert wine to follow your Easter feast.

Chardonnays, oaked or not, tend to find their ways onto more holiday tables than other whites. Depending on its cooperage, the wine can be more fully bodied with representative hints of vanilla from the wood and relatively solid tannic backbone.

The 2010 Fess Parker Chardonnay ($14) from Santa Barbara County and the 2009 Kunde Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($16) both benefit from time spent in French and Hungarian oak casks, with a result of apples, pears and citrus and pineapple on the nose and palate. The wines are sturdier and the flavors less delicate than the reislings, with ample acidity to help them nicely complement either entree.

But then some of us better enjoy red wines with just about anything (Easter Peeps included) and the logical choice is Pinot Noir. Fully flavored, yet more delicate in its constitution compared to its burlier brothers, the pinots strikes just the right balance for lighter meats, making it a nice complement to ham or lamb.

The 2010 Estancia Pinot Noir ($15) from Pinacles Ranch come from vineyards perched on the side of Monterey County’s Gabilan Mountains and benefit from higher, slightly cooler altitudes. The medium-bodied wine, with a nose of black fruit and baking spice caries a nice balance and good structure to the glass. The 2010 Kenwood Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($15) comes from a similarly cooler appelation so important to good grape growth. Look for fruit-forward aromas of boysenberry and strawberry, with bright spicy notes on the palate that leave a lingering, satisfying finish.

Then there are those of us who throw caution to the wind and embrace Zinfandel, it’s hearty, rustic characteristics providing an entirely different level of fulfillment after the elegance of the pinot and the bright, spring-like nature of the whites. The rights zins, as fans already know, can almost become meals in themselves.

The 201o Artezin Zinfandel ($15) from Medocino County offer the classic fruit-forward zin profile, a full-bodied wine with rounded tannins suitable for the long haul. Look for brambly red and black fruits with notes of spice and black pepper on a satiated palate. More robust still is the 2009 Buehler Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel ($18), blended with a small mix of Petite Syrah grown on the same hillside. The rich, robust wine has a fine mouth feel, with the Petite Syrah contributing peppery overtones and tannic structure to the wine’s brambly dark fruit flavors.

Zinfandel may not be quite the right match for those brightly colored eggs the rabbit has left for you, but its memory will linger long after you have emptied your basket.

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