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Hamming it up with some classy wines
By John H. Isacs

HAM is one of those special foods that truly begs to be paired with a wine. Common qualities found in many hams including saltiness, fat and sometimes sweetness need to be offset and complemented by something, and not surprisingly, the appropriate wine does this better than anything else.

Wild pigs were roaming prehistoric forests and jungles 40 million years ago making them a whole lot older than us. Recent archeological finds suggest that semi-domesticated pigs were being managed in the wild by tribes between 13,000 and 12,700 BC in the Tigris Basin of the Near East.

The first evidence of domesticated pigs in China dates back 8,000 years ago. Suffice to say that pork is a very ancient meat beloved by many civilizations, yet also reviled by others. Over 5,000 years ago ham production was popular in Egypt but more ancient practices of making ham may well have existed in the Near and Far East.

Ham in today's world is quite diverse with all major culinary cultures. Let's look at the most famous western ham as well as China's Jinhua ham and introduce their natural wine partners.

If there's a Rolls Royce of the ham world, it has to be Iberico ham from Spain. Generally acknowledged as the world's best ham, the best examples of Iberico ham are masterpieces of the natural curing process.

Western hams

I had the opportunity to visit Spanish ham producing regions on several occasions and visit some of the most famous farms and facilities that make Iberico ham. The key to their quality is the unique climate, special breed of pig, local food sources and a lengthy and laborious curing process. The result is the world's best ham that surprising is also good for you.

When first told that the best examples of this fatty cured ham were actually good for your health and in particular are beneficial to one's cholesterol, I was naturally quite dubious.

But it's true. The highest grade of Iberico pigs fatten up eating acorns and the antioxidants in the acorns change the saturated fat in the animal into a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid that lowers the harmful LDL cholesterol while also raising the good HDL cholesterol.

This is every food lover's sweetest dream, a fatty meat that's actually good for you!

When possible I counsel geographic affinity when pairing foods and wines, so it should come as no surprise that my top wine picks for Iberico ham are mostly Spanish. Spaniards often enjoy thinly sliced Iberico ham before dinner with some bread and olive oil. In these cases two perfect partners are Cava sparkling wine or a glass of Fino dry Sherry.

Cava is the lighter option and the nice acidity and bubbles in the wine nicely cleanse the palate of the saltiness and fattiness of the ham. The clean nature of Cava wines also helps to highlight the natural sweetness of the ham. Cava sparklers to look for include the Freixenet Corton Negro and Rosato Brut wines as well as the Vallformosa Cava Brut and Grand Baron Cava Brut.

For a more potent partnership try the classic approach of pairing Iberico ham with Fino Sherry. The intensity of a good Fino along with its sensations of yeast, and savory yet also fresh flavors make it perfect for Iberico ham.

The two mutually embellish each other providing one of the gourmet world's best and most iconic experiences. Great Finos that are available in Shanghai include Williams & Humbert Fino, Lustau Puerto Fino, Harveys Fino and the world's best selling Fino, Tio Pepe.

Should you desire a red wine with Iberico ham, then I suggest a rather bold young fresh wine with good acidity that can cut through the sweet fat. Good crianza red from Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Toro all have the aforementioned attributes.

Jinhua ham

Named after the city of Jinhua in Zhejiang Province where it is produced, Jinhua ham is China's best and most-beloved ham. The first recorded accounts of Jinhua ham come from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) but it is likely ham in China predates this period.

Made from a local breed of pig referred to as "two ends pig" that matures quickly and yields high-quality meat, Jinhua ham is a dry-cured ham used in some of China's most famous dishes.

The elaborate process to make Jinhua hams takes eight to 10 months and involves five principal steps that include preparation, salting, soaking, drying, ripening and post ripening. The result is a exceptional ham with a shiny smooth exterior, bamboo leaf shape, small joint and bone, large layer of white fat covering a reddish colored meat, pungent odor and complex salty, savory and slightly sweet flavors.

Enjoyed alone or when it comprises a significant portion of a dish, Jinhua ham is best paired with a robust white, red or fortified wine.

Chilean or New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs come to mind, as do unoaked Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume whites. Zesty reds with good freshness like young Grenache-centric wines from the Southern Rhone are also quite nice with many Jinhua dishes.

The combination of saltiness, fat and pungency in Jinhua ham also makes this style of ham another perfect partner for Fino Sherry.

When Jinhua ham is part of a savory soup, fish or meat dish you may want to try an Amontillado Sherry that provides more body and complexity than a Fino but still has the palate cleansing qualities needed to offset the strong flavors of the ham. Amontillados well worth trying include Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado Solera Riserva and Gonzalez Byass La Concha Amontillado.

One lovely combination is the Jinhua ham with honey and crispy bean curd in a pancake with the off-sweet Jose Estevez Contrabandista Amontillado.

The synergistic sweet and savory flavors in both the dish and Sherry are delicious.

With the most refined Jinhua dishes I suggest the limited edition Bodegas Tradicion VORS Amontillado, a wine over 30 years old with the oldest contributing vintage in the bottle over a century old. Believe me, Jinhua ham never tasted so good.

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