Lamb may not be everyone’s first preference among red meats, however those who are partial to a succulent chop or cutlet yet not so versed in wine pairings may wonder whether to uncork a red, white or rosé before tucking in. And if when pairing wine with lamb the instinct is toward red, one may then wonder which reds are best?
The first and simplest answer is all red wines. You read correctly. When wine pairing, no red meat showcases a red wine’s food-friendliness better than lamb – roasted lamb especially. This is because flavour-wise, whilst lamb meat may be considered as somewhere between beef and game, it also has the higher fat component.
And as they say, fat is flavour. So, when on the palate it is given a good lashing from a red with sufficient acidity and tannin to keep this fattiness in check, the results are especially delicious. Tannin and fat love each other, and taste-buds love this union ever more. Acidity just keeps the affair clean and tidy.
Of course, we don’t rule out any and all white wine options for lamb and will get to these later.
In the meantime, let’s highlight a few factors that will contribute to the optimum red wine/roast lamb pairing we seek:
Good levels of acidity & tannin
Medium to full-body in weight
Meat preparation/serving (i.e.) marinade/spices/herbs/sauces
Among Mr.Wheeler’s carefully chosen selection, you’ll find wines that accommodate these factors. So, let’s explore some of the more popular ones and get you some ideal options for drinking with that glorious roast lamb dinner you’ve been planning.
Where the classic, cabernet and/or merlot-dominant blends originate and a natural, first port-of-call when looking to pair with any red meats. For lamb dishes, all here awaits. Bordeaux reds are usually medium to full-bodied with aromas of plum, blackcurrant, sweet spice and an underlying earthiness.
On the palate, red Bordeaux shows a mineral fruitiness, freshness and acidity, typically followed by robust tannins which lend themselves to the wine's ability to age for years – in a more complex wine, often decades.
Already, you can taste how well it will go in all lamb pairings. And given cabernet sauvignon is particularly big on acidity and tannin, you might want to sharpen focus on the region’s Left Bank, where this varietal dominates the cuvée. This means Médoc, Haut-Médoc, St-Estèphe, St-Julien, Pauillac, Margaux Pessac-Léognan, Graves etc. (Read on.)
Arguably the best all-rounder when taking on any lamb-based dish, cabernet Sauvignon is renowned for having an abundance of precisely what is required: acidity and tannin (see ‘Bordeaux’ above). An ‘international varietal’ also, it is grown in pretty much all red-winegrowing regions of the world and as such, offers an endless array of styles and expressions to savour with any lamb dish.
Whether as a 100% bottling or blended with small amounts of other varietals, cabernet’s natural aromas and flavours of bramble, black cherry, cassis, cedar, eucalyptus, capsicum, sweet spice, earth (the list goes on) are simply wonderful with a roasted lamb joint or rack and red wine-based sauce.
Wonderful because while cabernet’s depth of flavour and ‘grippy’ tannins enhance the rich gaminess of lamb, its natural acidity cuts through the meat’s fattiness, thus cleansing the palate for that next round of gratification.
Spain’s most famous appellation and, in culinary terms, one synonymous with roast leg, roast shoulder and barbecued lamb. In other words, when considering wine with lamb, Rioja-with-lamb, lamb-with-Rioja, is a mantra.
This is because the region’s tradition of blending and oak-ageing of tempranillo, garnacha (grenache) and graciano makes for reds that are at once voluptuous and perfectly structured for the sensual task at hand.
By ‘structured’, we mean having those two key factors mentioned above, which, when on the money, add freshness and clear definition to aromas and flavours of red and dark fruit, blackcurrant and spice. Flavours in delicious harmony with the sweetness and richness of slow-cooked lamb.
Like cabernet sauvingon, syrah is a true international varietal and one rendered in an array of styles and flavours. Styles ranging from fresher, medium-bodied to full-bodied reds in the Rhône (from where the grape originates) to quite rich, ripe and jammy versions Down Under, where it is commonly known as shiraz.
As for aromas and flavours, cooler-climate regions tend to give violet florals, pepper, liquorice, dried herbs, earthiness and savoury olive fruit, whereas warmer conditions push the profile further into sweeter, black fruit flavours, along with plum, clove, baking spice, dark chocolate and coffee.
But it’s this cooler, more savoury side of Syrah – particularly this black olive characteristic typical of Northern Rhône Syrah – that really resonates with slow-cooked or roast leg of lamb or slow-cooked shoulder. Where rosemary and garlic is a must.
Although much lighter in body than any of the reds described thus far, the brisk, natural acidity, pepperiness and concentrated, red and dark cherry flavours of pinot noir make it a sumptuous pairing with roast lamb chops. And given lamb’s weightiness, the more body you can manage in a pinot, the better.
This means going for pinot noirs from sunnier climes such as California, New Zealand or South Africa where fruit is rendered richer, thus imbuing wines with deeper, darker fruit and a more robust tannic structure.
Goodness, yes. With the pronounced levels of acidity and tannin that are typical of the principal red varietals of Italy, here are wines that are simply triumphant when paired with lamb dishes. In sangiovese, sour/tart black cherry fruit with herbaceous and earthy notes for the classic wines of Tuscany’s Chianti, Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino appellations.
Piedmont’s nebbiolo varietal imbues the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco with typical aromas and flavours of rose petal, liquorice, black cherry, tar, truffle, violet, leather, prune and tobacco. Barbera (also a native of Piedmont), gives darker, richer plum fruit with mocha nuances yet still with lashings of mouth-watering acidity to cleanse the palate of lamb’s fatty residue.
All three are just three examples, of course, but three you should start with when you’re ready to indulge in the wonderful pairings that are to be had in Il Bel Paese.
The Californian signature varietal and one with all the sweet spice and juicy dark, stewed fruit that goes so well with any lamb dish. Add to this dried florals, sultanas and dates on the nose you’ve a superb option to go with lamb tagine. Lamb burgers, skewered shish and leg steaks on the barbecue? Check. Zin is undoubtedly the all-rounder when ‘round the charcoal and open flame.
Grenache-based reds are indispensable to slow-cooked lamb shoulder or leg. In Spain and the south of France, grenache is as ubiquitous as such dishes themselves. Bursting as it does with fresh, exuberant, white-peppery, red and dark cherry fruit and a spicy, herbaceous vibrancy, it’s a beautiful enhancement of lamb’s natural gaminess.
Although not as tannic as the more thickly skinned cabernet sauvignon, for example, it does offer a refreshing level of acidity for cleansing the palate of the meat’s oilier elements.
Chardonnay is one of few white wines that pairs nicely with lamb. This owes primarily to the level of ripeness and thus weight chardonnay can achieve in warmer climates. The creamy, spicy, zesty characteristics to be enjoyed in an Aussie or Californian chardonnay, for example, go brilliantly with a roasted rack of lamb encrusted with aromatic herbs and spices. And as chardonnay has good capacity to retain a decent amount of acidity, it will ensure lamb’s natural fattiness is checked on the palate.
Although aged Riesling may seem at first an unlikely partner to lamb, it is, in fact magnificent with a spicy lamb curry or rogan josh. The vibrant acidity of this aromatic classic makes it the perfect match for the fattiness of lamb, while the stone fruit, lime zest and honey flavours provide harmonious counterpoint a savoury, fiery repertoire of sub-continental spices.
Other Wines to Pair with Lamb
If you’re keen on rosé wine, a vintage rosé champagne is also a good choice. Its fresh, fruity profile is perfect for contrasting the fatty flavours in lamb while the creamy textures compliment the delicate tenderness of the meat.
Discover the Best Wines to Pair with Roast Lamb
Inspired yet? You should be. Which makes your next step an exploration of Mr.Wheeler’s hand-picked range of artisanal cuvées from France, Italy, Spain, Argentina, South Africa (keep going) to ensure you find the perfect wine for your next roast-lamb-based wave of culinary joy.
But if you still need some guidance, no problem, just reach out – we’re always here.