Spring Lamb & Wine Dinner Table Pairings

In Foodie Tips & Tidbits, The Imbibery and Distillery by Les Kincaid

Never Too Old to Learn to Like Lamb

(contributed by Chef Les Kincaid)

Typically, lamb shares the table with red Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Côtes du Rhône. Those familiar varieties are tried-and-true pairings, but I’d encourage you to try the lesser-known–and truly delicious–options.

Lamb is traditionally–and symbolically–the main dish at Easter dinner. But most Americans haven’t tried this luscious cut of meat. If you’re one of them, start now, with some beautiful lamb wine pairings to entice you. Younger (spring!) lambs taste milder and less gamey, but still deliver a richness that rivals steak. That makes the meat ideal for dry, fruit-forward red wines.

The term cooking wine has two meanings: There’s the wine you put in a dish, and―equally as important―the wine you sip while you cook. I think there’s no better way to spend an evening than concocting a delicious dish while sipping a good wine. 

It’s easy to find a good wine to drink while you cook―in fact, it’s often easier than knowing which wine to cook with. That’s because when listed commonly as an ingredient, wine is often suggested in the most generic terms. When a recipe says, “1 cup dry white wine,” you’re left to wonder: Will anything from $ 8 to $ 25 do?” and “Can the recipe yield equally flavorful results with either a California Pinot Noir or French Bordeaux? Tender lamb is the cornerstone of many a spring menu. Its gamey flavor brings a certain richness to entrées that is very welcome after a winter of meat and potatoes. Of course, it also requires a different wine that what you’ve been drinking all winter. Here’s what you’ll want to pair:

It’s true that lamb is one of the most wine-friendly of meats, as at home with red Bordeaux and Rioja as it is with the fruitier wines of the new world. But if you’re looking for a spot-on match it’s worth thinking just how – and for how long – you’re going to cook it.

And, though you might not have thought about it before, how old it is.

‘Baby/milk fed’ lamb

A delicacy more popular in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and south-west France than in the UK and one that deserves to be paired with fine wines – top quality Bordeaux, burgundy and Rioja, all with a few years’ bottle age. (Mature wines go well with this style of lamb)

Spring lamb served pink with fresh herbs and/or spring vegetables

Cuts like rack of lamb, noisette and leg of lamb – exactly the sort of dishes you might be thinking about for an Easter feast (unless you’re living in the southern hemisphere, of course). Again, the wines mentioned above will work well but I’ve got a bias in favor of Pinot Noir or cru Beaujolais with this type of dish. Dry rosé, especially vintage rosé Champagne, is also good.

Roast lamb served medium-rare to well-done, with garlic or rosemary and/or a winey sauce or gravy

The way many households would prepare a leg of lamb for a multi-generational family get-together. This is more robust treatment than the above which would work better with a younger, more fruit-driven wine such as a younger red Bordeaux, Cabernet or Cabernet/Merlot blend, a Rioja Reserva, a Chianti Classico or a northern Rhône red. (The same goes for lamb shanks cooked in red wine.) Here are some ideas:

Slow-roast shoulder of lamb

A fattier, more flavorful dish, especially if made with older lamb such as mutton. A slightly gamey Rhône or Spanish red such as a Ribera del Duero is a good choice with this.

Typically, British/Irish lamb stews and hotpots, shepherd’s pie

The characteristic of these types of dishes is their very simple flavors – sweet-tasting lamb, stock and a few root vegetables with maybe a sprig of thyme or bay. Big tannic reds will overwhelm them – stick to inexpensive country reds such as a Côtes du Rhône Villages. (Or, frankly, a British pale ale.)

More exotic lamb stews such as tagines or lamb with auberges

Robust, rustic but not overly tannic reds such as Côtes du Roussillon, Languedoc reds and young (crianza) Riojas.

Lamb is a constant on menus in almost every wine region. Pinot Noir with roast leg of lamb is classic. Or baby lamb from the salt marshes with Châteauneuf-du-Pape or a Gironde’s. Grilled lamb chops with Sangiovese is another favorite. A fruity, slightly port red such as a Douro red or Zinfandel should work provided the accompanying dishes aren’t too hot. India Pale Ales (IPAs) are also good.

Chargrilled/barbecued lamb

Depends on the rub or marinade. If it’s spicy you’ll need a wine with some sweet fruit like a Chilean Cabernet, Pinotage, or an Australian Shiraz. If it’s marinated, Greek-style, with lemon and herbs look for a wine with a bit less fruit and a bit more acidity. (Italian reds such as Chianti and Barbera fit this description.

Rack of Lamb: Your elegant rack of lamb always calls for a sophisticated wine. You’ll want something fruity from the New World that can hold up against strong herbal flavors used in your cooking. Try a big Australian Syrah.

Lamb Chops: Frenched lamb chops are best for when you don’t want to roast a whole rack, but still want a refined dinner. But the smaller, more tender chops mean a younger, less structured wine. Match with a Rioja Reserva or Chianti Classico.

Lamb Kebabs: Kebabs are some of the easiest grilled weeknight meals. The wine depends on the marinade. For instance, if you’re going for a fresh Mediterranean approach, you’ll want some acidity to complement both the meat and vegetables. Try a nice Barbera d’Asti.

Lamb Chili: There could still be a chilly night between here and summer. But even if there’s not, lamb should be a part of any springtime chili or tagine. Something that cuts through the spice will do well, like a Left Bank red Bordeaux.

Shepherd’s Pie: A big savory pie with its mashed potato crust is a beautiful thing for Sunday dinner. Choose something a little heavier, but not too tannic. Pick up a Mourvedre or Grenache from the Languedoc.

Rogan Josh or Lamb Vindaloo: The aromatic Persian and Indian classics are great ways to expand your home cooking repertoire. They will be the stars of the show, especially if you add a sparkling Pinot Meunier rosé is for the supporting role.

However, a long-simmered leg of lamb or beef roast calls for a correspondingly hearty wine, such as a Petite Syrah or a Zinfandel. A lighter dish might call for a less powerful red―think Pinot Noir or Chianti. Get to know Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala. These are among the best wines good cooks can have on hand.

When choosing a wine for cooking, you want to enhance the flavors of the dish, not dominate them. This means that lighter to medium bodied wines which have decent acidity are best. For whites, stay away from anything oaked as this flavor profile has a way of being a little too obvious in food.

-Les Kincaid