Lamb and Red Wine

Paul Blow

Spring is lamb season. That in turn means it’s wine season, as lamb is the most wine-friendly meat. It pairs beautifully with Cabernets, Rhônes, and—my newest discovery—Pinot Noir.

A classic Cabernet’s minty/herbal side goes with the grassiness of lamb (which, traditionally, can be served with a mint sauce), while Rhône reds (the grape is usually Syrah or Grenache) often possess an earthiness that flatters lamb’s meaty complexity. But Pinot Noir illustrates an important lesson of food-and-wine pairing: It’s sometimes better to go for contrast than harmony.

A few weeks ago, a wine producer from France’s Rhône Valley was coming to dinner, and I wanted to cook something to go with his wine. His brand, Domaine du Pégau, is one of the top wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; it’s Grenache-based and exceedingly food friendly. He brought a very rare 2000 Da Capo (Pégau has many more attainable choices). The wine certainly had game: not basketball prowess, but flavors suggestive of wild animals, such as rich cherry and blackberry, wild herbs, and hints of olives, coffee, and tar. Lamb was a natural choice. I bought a boneless leg of Oregon lamb, roasted it whole, and, to echo the character of the wine, I devised a pungent relish of dry-cured black olives, shallots, garlic, thyme, anchovies, rosemary, and orange zest.

The wine went so well with the dish that it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. But another guest had brought a bottle of luminous Pinot Noir, a Burgundy: 2001 Romanée Saint-Vivant from Jean-Jacques Confuron. It was classic Vosne-Romanée (the village from which it comes), with bright cherry, mineral, and spice. The Pinot didn’t mirror any of the flavors of the lamb and olives, but, surprisingly, I liked it better as a match. Its bright red fruit brought out the meat’s darker, earthier notes; the wine lifted the combination and took it to a new place rather than simply following toward a predictable resolution.

The next day, still full and somewhat hungover (with a kitchen piled with dirty dishes and glasses—the dinner party went long and drunk), I had to rush to a wine-tasting lunch put on by two top California wineries: Qupé, which is famous for Rhône-variety wines (particularly Syrah), and Au Bon Climat, celebrated for Pinot Noir. Of course, the main dish was lamb.

So there I found myself with a glass of Syrah and a glass of Pinot next to a plate of lamb. Which wine would win out? I asked Au Bon Climat’s winemaker, Jim Clendenen, who was sitting across from me. He said that this issue had been coming up recently for him too: “It’s not a combination I think of as reflexively as Pinot and pork, but I’ve been testing it lately, and it does indeed work, especially if the lamb’s not too lean and not overcooked.”

During the lunch I kept going between the Syrah and Pinot with the lamb, and my conclusion was the same as the night before, despite the fact that I was drinking California Syrah instead of French Grenache. The Rhône-style wine went wonderfully with the lamb, but the bright red fruit of the Pinot again took the pairing to a more interesting place.

Before I take the dramatic step of proclaiming that Pinot is the best wine for lamb I need to do yet another taste-off, this time throwing in a Cabernet for ultimate scientific verification. But this much is clear: If you’re looking to show off some red wines at a dinner party this spring, lamb is the way to go.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.