Wine Pairing with Ham: A Guide

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Wine and ham on a table

As a culinary staple of the holiday season, your dinner ham is more than a form of nourishment. It is the cornerstone of the meal, inviting your guests to experience good food and fantastic conversation and leave them wanting more. For a meal that is as much a celebration as the holiday, this American classic needs a wine that can pull out the meat’s complexity: the mélange of salt and sweet, brine and glaze.

How to Pair Wine and Ham

Ham’s popularity in the United States comes from its flavor, a product of the salting, curing, or smoking that transforms the meat from a cut of pork to the rich and seasoned main event at holiday gatherings. Technically the hind leg and rump of the pig, ham pairs well with a wine that is rich, fruity, and not too light. While a number of varietals can accomplish this pairing, the key is to consider the type of ham at the table, its accompaniments, and the notes in the wine that will play best against their flavors and substance.

When selecting the perfect wine pairing with ham, look for a full-bodied bottle that can cut through the ham’s astringency while accentuating its uniqueness. Keep reading for ideas on pairing everything from the main dinner dish to a cocktail hour spread.

Wine and Ham Pairings

Country Ham  

Ham’s popularity as a United States holiday staple means a diverse and plentiful selection abounds, but unless you choose your meats from a local farm or butcher and plan to cook it yourself, you will likely choose between a country ham and a city ham for your holiday dinner. While country ham, which is cured in salt, boasts of flavor, it remains the drier of the two types of ham. For a wine that speaks to country ham's intensity, consider a rosé with significant balance, such as Côtes du Rhône. As with other blends of Grenache and Syrah, Côtes du Rhône boasts of a full body that pairs nicely with this ham. Fruity enough to complement the acidity of the ham, the richness of the wine’s body keeps the fruit from overpowering. For other wines that can produce a similar effect, also consider Zinfandel or a less dry Merlot.

City Ham 

City ham, meanwhile, is generally more familiar. Saturated in brine rather than undergoing a dry-curing process, city ham loses less water than country ham in its curing process and comes to the dinner table smokier, moister, and, when glazed with honey or brown sugar, sweeter. For hams with spiced glazes, consider a sweet wine. Fruity, juicy, and cool, Riesling can help pull the sweetness from spiced ham that would otherwise go unnoticed. Additionally, Chenin Blanc can pair well with ham through undercurrents that are both lively and creamy. Both wines suit city ham well, but in selecting a vintage, look for bottles that contain hints of honey for optimal pairing.

Bone-in Ham 

If you select bone-in ham rather than boneless or spiral cut, available from both country and city hams, the meat’s substance will be particularly evident. Slow-cooked, bone-in ham absorbs extra moisture from the bone’s gelatin, which soaks into the meat as it cooks. Consider Beaujolais for its fruitiness and richness. While Beaujolais can often come light-bodied, select a bottle with a fuller body in order to capture the better balance with the ham while still experiencing the wine’s intensity. Low in tannins, the Gamay grape in Beaujolais can help push the wine’s fruitiness forward against the ham.

Charcuterie Board

Beyond the traditional table, ham—in the form of prosciutto or jamón serrano—makes a welcome addition to a charcuterie board for a strolling dinner or cocktail hour. If a sharp, flavorful cheese accompanies the ham, look for Viognier, a fresh but still full-bodied wine whose notes of orange and stone fruits can balance stronger cheeses. For pairing with milder cheeses, such as brie, muenster, or fontina, select a rosé, which will bring a different wave of fruits to the board, or a dry prosecco with similar flavors.

Ham, Cheese, and Balsamic Roll-Ups

Ham’s versatility and accessibility make it both a sandwich staple and an hors d’oeuvre that deserves china. For an appetizer that can make an appearance at a luncheon or a gala, combine sweet and salty hickory ham with soft cheese, like cream cheese or mozzarella, and tangy balsamic dressing in ham rollups. Alongside that, offer new world Pinot Noir as a pairing, such as wines from Sonoma County. New world pinot noir carries more fruitiness than wines cultivated in older regions, which speaks nicely to the balsamic’s tartness.

Spanish Tomato Bread with Jamón Serrano

To bring jamón Serrano off the charcuterie board, consider using the BBC’s recipe for Spanish tomato bread with jamón Serrano for an easy and delicious tapas that sings of boldness. Pair it with Grenache Rosé, which can help cut through the salt and acidity of the tomatoes by pushing forward fruity notes and minimizing spice.

Select a Wine with JJ Buckley's Consultancy

Ham’s complexity cannot be understated, and sometimes the balance of a particular vintage can draw out the meat’s unique combinations. For assistance selecting a vintage that can do so, such as prominent fruitiness in an otherwise high-alcohol wine, JJ Buckley’s consultancy service can help. Wine specialists bring care and expertise to a selection process that will procure a balance that pairs perfectly with the flavors of holiday ham. Beyond pork, consultants can also assist with choosing wines that pair well with duck, lamb, turkey, and other festive meats as well as vegetarian entrees with similar substance. 

To begin the process, consider these pairing suggestions and peruse more than 3,000 wines available from JJ Buckley. Look for a match that marries the brine and sweetness of the ham to the depth of the wine. Then raise a glass of the palate-pleaser to good food, great wine, and, of course, the company with whom you enjoy it.  Santé!