Whole hog. Two words that conjure so many different images: a suckling pig with an apple jammed Gimp-style in its mouth served atop a silver tray as the centerpiece to a Sun King-esque feast; a sweat-drenched good ol’ boy wrenching open his soot-black smoker, beer in hand, overalls loose and drenched, mopping down the skin side with his homemade secret-recipe sauce; a corpulent, mustachioed chef dressed in impeccable whites and a foot-high toque sharpening his carving knife to separate out the choice cuts from the offal.
Whatever you picture when you hear “whole hog,” one thing people don’t often picture is which wine to pair with each cut. Admit it, you weren’t thinking about wine when you visualized those images I mentioned, were you? Didn’t think so. Fortunately, you’ve got me America’s Uncommon Wine Expert to solve this conundrum and recommend the perfect wine to pair with every part of the pig.
Pork cheek: This rich fatty delicacy known as Guanciale when rubbed with salt, sugar, pepper, and herbs and air-cured for weeks is a staple of heavy Italian pastas like Spaghetti alla carbonara and Sugo all’amatriciana, so a crisp, tart, medium-bodied Italian white like Arneis from the Piedmont region will cut through the cheeks’ richness and showcase Guanciale’s subtle saltiness and slight sweetness with tart pear flavors.
Pork Butt: Contrary to its name, this cut originates not from the hindquarters but from the pig’s robust upper shoulder and is a favorite among barbecue aficionados everywhere. With vinegar or mustard being the sauce of choice for pulled pork butt, an earthier, spicier red such as a Garnacha from Spain’s Toro region will step aside for the tartness but bring added earthy and smoky dimensions to the meat.
Pork Belly: Unlike the butt, this comes from exactly where it says it’s from. Its rich, dense fatty goodness makes it the second best cut of the pig. Whether roasted or fried, a thick slab of subtly-flavored belly cries out for a red with fruit and acidity in spades. An Oregon Pinot Noir will do in a pinch, but with my belly, I prefer the deeper, biting astringency of an Alvarelhao or Touriga Nacional from Portugal’s Douro region, both of which are redolent with smooth acidity, dark berries, and a lush, silky mouth feel.
Bacon: Sure, the belly and bacon may be the same cut, but what a difference smoking and curing makes! When frying up a rasher or two of the greatest substance known to man, pair it with an Austrian Gri¼ner Veltliner, a white whose tart citrus, minerality, and distinct white pepper notes are just made for the smoked crispy goodness of God’s favorite meat.
Pork Loin: From the top of the back and easily the most sophisticated cut of the pig, a thick, juicy carved pork loin deserves an earthier, more complex red wine of herbs, berries, minerals, and depth. Enter the Cotes-du-Rhone rouge from France’s Rhone Valley, whose potent blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre will bring smoothness, elegance, subtle tannins, and enough acidity to make any pork loin melt like filet mignon in your mouth.
Spare Ribs: Another staple of the smoker, spare ribs usually need nothing more than a spicy-sweet, peppery dry-rub, and a few hours of indirect heat. A tart cherry-flavored red with lots of peppery notes itself like a Spanish Tempranillo from Rioja, will drive the spice to the forefront but counteract the heat and fattiness of fall-off-the-bone ribs. No sauce required.
Ham: Whether for Christmas, Easter, or just an average Sunday dinner, ham is a must-have for every occasion that needs a good bottle of wine. Whether glazed, honeyed, or pineappled to bring out the subtle smoky, salty, and sweet flavors of a ham roast, you need a light, mildly tart and acidic wine that won’t overpower. My choice? A Beaujolais cru (not to be confused with Beaujolais Nouveau) from southern Burgundy made from 100% Gamay Noir and aged two years or more. For bolder flavors, seek out Cru wines from Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, or Chenas.
ADDED BONUS ” Pork Rinds: Nothing pairs better with a bag of salty, fatty, crispy chicharrones than an off-dry Riesling from Germany’s Mosel River Valley. Nothing.
Byline: Chris Kern, the founder of online wine shop ForgottenGrapes.com, dreams repeatedly of a pig made entirely of bacon. E-mail him directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @ForgottenGrapes.