There they were in the meat section of the supermarket — whole legs of lamb and impressive fresh hams, tightly cloaked in shiny plastic wrap as unmistakable reminders that Easter was just around the corner. It didn’t matter that it still felt like winter; Easter this year is just a few days after the arrival of spring, and lamb and fresh ham, which is really a pork roast, are traditionally served at this time of renewal.
So what about the wines? Well, I wouldn’t serve anything too timid or subtle for these roasts. Lamb needs a big red, and with a fresh ham I would go with substantial whites. These are perfect dishes for full-bodied American wines and so, with that in mind, I decided to look for some good, moderately priced cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays.
I started with half a dozen examples of each that I’d been meaning to try, with an eye toward finding two or three that stood out. The cabernets were from several areas of California and Washington state and were from the 2004 and 2005 vintages, which are widely available in stores now. The chardonnays represented various California appellations and were from 2005 and 2006.
I sampled the wines in blind tastings, wrapping and taping sheets of white paper or newspaper around the bottles and getting my 8-year-old son to mix them up and number them one through six. I tasted them over a couple of evenings, getting a first impression, then seeing how they evolved with a day or two of breathing time. This is especially valuable for judging reds since the wines are always released on the young side and will lose some of their rough edges as they “age” with exposure to air.
I chose cabernet sauvignon for the lamb because its deep black and red berry notes; its oak aging and spicy qualities won’t be overpowered by the simple yet bold flavors of lamb and whatever marinades and herbs, such as rosemary, you might choose. In similar fashion, big-fruit California chardonnay, with its typical underlay of oak, will match well with the ham and its seasonings. In both cases (and as always) I was looking for balanced, harmonious and interesting wines.
My favorite cabernet of the tasting was from Wild Horse, a well-known Central Coast winery that sources fruit from the Paso Robles appellation. My top chardonnay was from Clos Du Val, a famous Napa Valley property that grows its chardonnay in the Carneros region. It was also gratifying to see that one of the chardonnays among my top three retails for just $10.
Wild Horse 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, Central Coast, California. $21. Bright and freshly acidic with raspberry and cranberry notes at first, giving way to blackberry, with hints of cedar and clove. Firmly but not overly tannic. I liked its overall lean impression. Excellent value. Unusual blend of 91 percent cabernet sauvignon, with malbec, blaufrankisch and syrah also in the mix.
Milbrandt Vineyards 2005“Legacy” Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington state. $25. This impressive cabernet is from brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt, who, until recently, sold their fruit from eastern Washington to other wineries. Blackberry and mocha notes with a good deal of oak, but softly tannic and well balanced with a bright finish. 95 percent cabernet and 5 percent petite verdot.
Beringer 2005Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, Napa Valley, California. $27. With blackberry, plum, cedar and an herbal note, this is a big cab for those who like lots of oak and a firm tannic structure. Small amounts of cabernet franc and petite sirah are in the blend.
Chalone Vineyard 2005 Estate Chardonnay, Chalone Appellation, Monterey County, California. $25. This was the richest of the chardonnays, a nice blend of pear, butterscotch and creamy oak, on one hand, with touches of lemon and orange peel to balance things at the end.
Concannon 2006 Chardonnay “Selected Vineyards,” Central Coast, California. $10. This chardonnay grew on me and has good complexity at this price, with green apple, buttery oak and lemon-lime notes. One of the best values in California chardonnay.
All the wineries, with the exception of Milbrandt Vineyards, are well known and the wines should be widely available. If you have trouble finding the Milbrandt cabernet, you can find more information at milbrandtvineyards.com.
Edward Deitch is the recipient of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award for Best Multimedia Writing. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at