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Picking wine for Easter dinner is a challenge

A Pinot Grigio from Abbazia di Novacella in the Alto Adige region of Italy would make a good match for your Easter dinner if ham is on the menu. Pictured are the winemaker’s vineyards.
A Pinot Grigio from Abbazia di Novacella in the Alto Adige region of Italy would make a good match for your Easter dinner if ham is on the menu. Pictured are the winemaker’s vineyards.

We’re rapidly approaching Easter Sunday, which comes early this year on April 5.

For many of us, the holiday culminates in a large family meal. Like Thanksgiving, some families choose brunch/lunch time for the meal, while others do dinner.

Unlike Thanksgiving, though, where the vast majority of meals center on turkey and all the trimmings, Easter feasting often means ham, one of the more challenging wine matches, or lamb, one of the more flexible with regards to wine.

With both options in mind, and a little bubbly to get things started, I’ve come up with some suggested interesting sippers for the Easter meal.

Some of the wines and producers are new to me. I’ve included well-known regions and grape varieties, and lesser known areas and grapes. The common denominator in all these are tasty bottlings that won’t break the bank but will provide delicious matches with a wide range of cuisines.

Let’s begin with the starter. It’s kind of an unwritten rule in the Eckert household that all holiday meals, and many non-holiday meals for that matter, start with some bubbly.

I’d love to say that means Champagne all the time, as I truly believe there is nothing that matches the elegance, excellence and quality of Champagne. But alas, Champagne’s price tag often pushes me toward other tasty, more affordable, sparkling wine options.

One such option is prosecco, a lightly fizzy wine from the Veneto region of Italy. Proseccos are produced with just a hint of sweetness. They are soft in the mouth and pleasantly fruity with good acidity, all qualities making them good matches for saltier/sweeter types of food.

Ideally, I’d say that would mean something like prosciutto and melon, but for Easter I’m thinking more of the prosecco matching up with a glazed ham. I’ve tried it, and it’s a pretty darned good pairing.

There are a host of good, inexpensive proseccos on the market. I recently tried the Bellenda San Fermo prosecco Superiore. This prosecco is made with 100 percent Chardonnay grapes, so it’s richer than some other versions you may find. I believe a bolder prosecco is better suited to handling a honey- or pineapple-glazed ham, and I wouldn’t mind at all starting with a glass of the Bellenda before moving to the dinner table, then having a second glass with the ham.

I have one other still white wine I’d like to recommend for the ham-centric Easter meal before moving on to suggested wine pairings with lamb, which, as mentioned, are much easier to make. Staying in Italy, let’s head just north of the Veneto and the land of prosecco to Alto Adige, known for mineral-rich soils, high-elevation vineyards and cooler climates.

Those three qualities lead to truly unique wine expressions from grape varieties that are extremely familiar, such as Pinot Grigio, to lesser known, indigenous grapes such as Kerner or Sylvaner.

I recently discovered an Alto Adige winery with an incredible history and a track record for turning out wonderful wines that beautifully represent their terroir.

Abbazia di Novacella, on the southern side of the Alps, is the last Augustinian Abbey in Italy. It was founded in 1142, meaning Abbazia di Novacella has been producing remarkable wines with indigenous grapes for over 850 years.

I tried the Kerner, the Gruner Veltliner, and the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio.

While I enjoyed the Kerner and Gruner, the Pinot Grigio was stellar, and I believe the most flexible of the three in matching cuisine.

Unlike the vast majority of Pinot Grigio coming in waves of mediocre, watery wines, the Abbazia’s Pinot Grigio had a depth of flavor I’ve not often experienced in an Italian Pinot Grigio. That, along with a core of minerality and wonderful, bracing, acidity makes it a nice addition to your Easter dinner table.

All right, having covered my bases with a still and sparkling Easter dinner wine choice, let’s move on to what some of my wine-drinking friends call “real wine,” or as the rest of us know it, red wine.

I’m going to assume we’re talking about either a bone in, semi-boneless or boneless leg of lamb as the centerpiece of the Easter meal. The classic pairing with lamb is Cabernet Sauvignon, or more specifically, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine from Bordeaux where Cabernet originated.

I’m fine with a red Bordeaux from either side of the Gironde River, the more muscular Cab-dominated wines from the left bank, or the sometimes softer Cabernet Franc and Merlot-based wines from the right.

Beyond, a Napa Valley, Sonoma County or Paso Robles Cab or Cab blend would be fine, as would hundreds of other Cabs from Washington State in the north, to Chile in the South, to Australia in the “down under.”

However, I think there are better and more interesting choices to be made.

Allow me to offer one such choice: Rioja. The main grape, often the only grape, found in Rioja is Tempranillo, which offers up dusty plums and ripe red fruit against a slightly earthy background.

I should point out that there are hundreds of Riojas, all with different styles, grape blends and price points. There are so-called “New World” Rioja producers who make wine in a much more California-style: more new oak and longer stays in said oak, higher toned fruit and often higher alcohol.

I prefer a more traditional style of Rioja, which to me means a bit rustic, but with more of the dusty/earthiness that I believe is a beautiful and elusive characteristic in Rioja as long as dusty and earthy don’t morph into “skunky.”

The Rioja I’m recommending this Easter is somewhere in between the two styles. The Bordon Rioja Reserva sees 18 months of new American oak, so it is definitely no shrinking violet. However, age has brought the fruit and oak together in a seamless package.

A blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha Tinta and Mazuelo, the Bordon Rioja Reserva is a perfectly balanced wine ready to take on the natural sweetness and slight earthiness of the lamb along with anything thrown at it by the garlic or herbs in which the lamb has been coated or crusted.

This is a new Rioja producer to me, but it will not be the last time I partake of the Bordon Rioja offerings.

Happy wine hunting and Happy Easter.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.

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