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Wine shines during Easter, Passover

From the point of view of religion, this is wine drinking's annual high-water mark. Easter isn't Easter without its dinner of lamb or ham and their wines; Passover isn't Pesach without the mandated four cups of wine during the Seder and then more afterward to wash down the brisket. Here's betting that even nondenominational Easter Bunny fans reach for the corkscrew after the egg hunt.

The truly ecumenical may attempt to recommend one wine to accompany all these foods, perhaps with open arms holding hard-boiled eggs and Peeps. (But no wine goes with Peeps. Peeps are not a food but a sort of foam made of corn syrup, gelatin and air. Peeps are a burp wrapped in sugar sandpaper.)

I will be not ecumenical but sectarian, taking the two religious gatherings in turn and recommending a few wines to best pair with their traditional foods.

Easter lamb

This Easter meat, with its history as a food of spring when lambs were birthed, or given the naming of Jesus as the Lamb of God, meets its wine apex in both Greek red wine and cabernet sauvignon. In days gone by, the best cabernet came from Bordeaux and was shipped from there by Englishmen, longtime lovers of roast lamb. What's nice is that cabernet sauvignon now grows well (and far less expensively) throughout the world, not merely in Bordeaux.

What lamb wants in a wine is sufficient tannin to scour away its fat and a certified redness. It is the duty of an Easter lamb's wine to be red.

2010 Skouras Agiorgitiko "Saint George," Nemea, Greece: Cherry and dark berry fruit accented with brown spice; noticeable but gentle tannins; zippy, edgy finish. $15

2012 Gentilini Red Blend "Eclipse," Cephalonia, Greece: A dry (emphasis: dry) mavrodaphne with some syrah in a wow of a delicious, dark, scented (anise, tobacco, minerals), smooth red. $32

2011 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Grande Reserve, Colchagua, Chile: Chile is no-fail country for cabernet; this is sensuously crafted dark berry fruit, softly tannic, finishing lengthily; great price. $15-$20

Easter ham

Whence cured pork for Easter? Well, the pig has always been a Christian meat, given its ubiquity in the Latin world, where all parts of it were consumed but for the oink. That it was commonly slaughtered in the fall, its fresh meat eaten throughout the winter, and its salted, dried and cured portions ready in the springtime, may explain the timing.

American-style ham is indeed salty, and that (and consequent high umami) is its bugaboo with wine. Such foods can skew the taste of red wine in particular toward the dull, flat, astringent and bitter. Best to select white wines, or dry pink wines (matching the color is a nice fillip), that are high in countervailing acidity.

"When I was visiting Burgundy," says Fernando Beteta, a Chicago-based master sommelier, "we always had starters of jambon persille (ham in parsley aspic) with a premier cru Chablis. It has great acidity, really gets under your tongue."

2011 Boudin Chablis 1er Cru Fourchaume "La Chantemerle," Burgundy, France: No oak to interrupt the stony, mineral-laden scents wafting above lemony, green apple-y flavors, all framed by piercing acidity; gorgeous and electric at once. $25-$30

2013 J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Rosé "White Pinot Noir," Willamette Valley, Oregon: Macerated, full cluster fruit, stirred lees and a tad of wood aging strips color but adds great complexity plus layers of aroma and flavor in this eerily beautiful dry pink. $20-$22

2013 Inman Family Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir "Endless Crush," Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California: A favorite every year, only getting better; gorgeous salmon color, waves of aroma of strawberry and Jolly Rancher watermelon; gob-smacking juicy flavor, fine acidity. $25

Passover brisket

What does a St. John know from a Jewish brisket? Well, that it is often cooked to tenderness but also can be as dry as the Sinai, and that its sauce is often honey-sweet.

Sweet foods aren't sweet on wine, unless the wine is as sweet, and that's for dessert only. Plus, the days of sweet concord grape wine with dinner are long over, thank you very much.

If the brisket's sauce isn't too sugared, what you'll need is a rich, softly turned-out red wine that doesn't need much fat to play against and that acts as its own luxurious and moistening "sauce" for the meat. Two kosher-for-Passover reds from Napa Valley recommend themselves.

2009 Hagafen Cellars Estate Syrah, Napa, California: Nice Napa version of syrah, inky without being dense or heavy, full of ripe black-red fruit flavors and aromas, hints of cocoa and leather, with nary a grit of tannin. $30

2011 Hagafen Cellars Estate Cabernet Franc, Napa, California: Cabernet franc like this is a mix of raspberry and blueberry notes, with abundant spicing and a tingle of "green" (a whisper of tomato leaf, perhaps), all darkly hued and softly tannic and juicy. $30-$38

If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.

Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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