Americans may still eat more beef than pork -- about 63 pounds per capita each year versus 48 -- but the current foodie fascination in the U.S. with all things porcine has crowned the pig king.
Whether it’s roast Italian maiale or a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich stuffed with slices of ham, pork hasn’t had better press since Charles Lamb wrote “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” back in 1823, in which he nailed the appeal of the savory porker as a kind of “animal manna.”
Yet unlike beef, which demands a big, brawny cabernet sauvignon to match its mineral-rich, juicy flavor, roast pig, sausages, and ham require a bit more thought as to what wine truly enhances the meat.
This year, I decided to find out which wines would go best with a backyard roast. I collected a dozen bottles of various varietals. I had already eliminated a few I knew wouldn’t work, including those big cabernets, expensive pinot noir-based Burgundies and Super Tuscans.
To some extent I relied on cultural tradition, that is, I asked myself what wine would be drunk by people who historically do pig roasts -- Italians, Spaniards, Central and South Americans. I eliminated the Chinese, who tend to sweeten the meat with soy sauce, caramel and ginger.
Pig roasts are certainly a part of the American South’s culinary tradition, but wine has never played a big role in that history. Rather like in the hillside barbecues called lechoneras outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico, where a cold Medalla Light beer seems to work wonders.
Because I basted with a puree of garlic, onion, chili pepper, and orange juice, I needed a wine with tannic backbone and an undertone of sweetness to complement the richness of the meat. Those two characteristics happen to be part of the appeal of the best California zinfandels and their Italian counterparts, primitivos.
A Joel Gott Zinfandel 2008 ($18) from Lodi and Amador had the right intensity, spice and peppery notes, providing a counterpoint to the smoke and basting juices.
Primitivo is the Italian name for the same grape as zinfandel (both came from Croatia), and a 2007 example from Piana del Sole in Puglia, where the varietal has flourished, had a perfectly pleasant, cherry and raspberry component. Yet overall the wine didn’t do much for the roast pig’s big flavors.
More complex but still a bit pale were two other Italian bottlings, a Masi Campofiorin Ripasso 2005 ($18) and Tre Roveri Pico Maccario Barbera d’Asti 2007 ($25), while a Spanish Mas de Can Blau 2005 ($42.50), a blend of carinena and garnacha, had the depth and brawn those grapes are known for, marrying well with the meat.
My favorite match-ups were two Amarone della Valpolicellas. These wines from Italy’s Veneto region are made from corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes left to dry out on straw mats to achieve a raisin-like status, intensifying the sugars.
A decade ago this traditional process resulted in unique, high-alcohol wines that tasted of leather, with more than a hint of sweetness and oxidation. Today the wines are better made, cleaner and intended to be drunk earlier, and the result is a wine of enormous body and 15 percent alcohol, but without the musty oxidation.
I tried two Amarones, a Vaona 2006 ($44) and a Speri Amarone 2004 ($92). The former was right on target to match the big flavors of the smoky meat, melding fruit and soft tannins with fat and smoke. It is a silky, sensual wine and the meat seemed blessed by it.
The Speri, considered one of the finest Amarones now made, has the benefit of aging, and its layers and layers of dark ripe fruits and its Port-like bouquet seem tailor-made to go with my backyard meal.
At $92, it’s one you save for a special occasion -- such as a major meal like this or a birthday -- which it was: mine.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)