Lamb is a rich, hearty meat, that’s often the hallmark of special occasions from Ramadan to Easter to Hanukkah to Christmas. However, to get the wine pairing spot on, you really have to consider the cut and preparation. Here are classic pairings for three common lamb dishes.
Roast Leg of Lamb
It doesn’t get much more classic than a whole-roasted leg of lamb. The meat is tender and juicy, with a succulent, gamey flavour. And, of course, there’s the incredible crispy outer crust from a combination of Dijon mustard, garlic, and savoury herbs like thyme and rosemary.
The classic pairing is Pinot Noir, especially if the lamb is cooked to medium-rare. It seems fitting to go to New Zealand, a country famed for its lamb (and where sheep outnumber residents by 5:1). The bold, dark fruits of Central Otago Pinot Noir can withstand the robust flavours of a leg of lamb, while still having the fresh, juicy acidity needed to cut through the fattiness of the cut. If you prefer more savoury expressions of Pinot Noir, you can head north to Martinborough, located an hour outside of Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. The earthy notes found here are a natural match with the lamb’s mild gaminess.
Syrah from cooler climates also works well. It can handle the lamb without being overwhelmed and shares common flavour characteristics like pepper and game. You can stay in New Zealand and look to Hawke’s Bay, which is making world-class examples that rival the top producers from the Northern Rhône.
Try these wines:
Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2019
Central Otago, New Zealand ($70)
Pyramid Valley Pinot Noir 2018
Central Otago, New Zealand ($50)
Craggy Range Winery Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017
Martinborough, New Zealand ($45)
Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2018
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand ($43)
Mud House Central Otago Pinot Noir 2019
Central Otago, New Zealand ($20)
Rack of Lamb/Lamb Chops
The rack of lamb is prized for its flavour and tenderness, making it one of the more expensive cuts. It may be cooked whole or sliced into chops that are affectionally called “lamb lollipops.” Provençal seasonings like garlic and rosemary again rule the day, in part because of Provence’s long history of raising sheep.
The traditional pairings come from nearby wine regions like the Rhône Valley, where the Grenache-based wines of the Southern Rhône naturally complement lamb and show garrigue aromas that match the herbs and spices commonly used. The top examples come from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but there’s remarkable value to be found even in a simple Côtes du Rhône.
If you’re a fan of mint with your lamb, red Bordeaux is the classic pairing. The minty herbaceous notes that you find in Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blends from the Left Bank, and communes like Pauillac, St. Estèphe, and St. Julien, are the perfect match. Something from the cellar with a bit of bottle age is even better.
Try these wines:
Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape La Crau 2018
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley ($100)
Chateau de Pez 2016
St. Estephe, Bordeaux ($55)
Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2017
Côtes du Rhône, Rhône Valley ($20)
M. Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche Rouge 2019
Côtes du Rhône, Rhône Valley ($14)
Lamb shanks may be a tougher cut, but they become fall-off-the-bone tender after slow cooking for hours. They also absorb a ton of flavour from the braising liquid they’re cooked in, too. Red wine is often used, but don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune on your cooking wine. A simple bottle of Chianti will do fine; after all, the flavours will be intensely concentrated by the time it’s finished cooking.
You can continue the Italian theme and pour a Sangiovese to pair with your lamb shanks. Sangiovese has naturally high acidity that will cut through the richness and fattiness of the dish, with bright red fruit to complement the robust flavours of the lamb. If you want to treat yourself, reach for a Chianti Classico Gran Selezione or Brunello di Montalcino. The former is the top expression of Chianti but still won’t break the bank. Brunello di Montalcino is a dense, powerful style of Sangiovese, with prolonged barrel aging to match the higher price tag.
Try these wines:
Antinori Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino 2015
Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany ($85)
Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione 2017
Chianti Classico, Tuscany ($60)
Antinori Villa Toscana 2018
Tuscany, Italy ($20)
Santa Cristina by Antinori Rosso 2018
Tuscany, Italy ($10)
So, whether you’re having a roasted leg of lamb, a rack of lamb, or lamb shanks, you’re ready to pick out the perfect bottle of wine.