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Your Guide To The Perfect Lamb Wine Pairing

April Sullivan
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Your Guide To The Perfect Lamb Wine Pairing

When it comes to meat consumption in the United States, lamb is often considered an also-ran: A ranking of countries according to consumption of sheep meat by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the average American eats less than a pound per year. This is significantly lower than many other countries, including Australia, where the per capita consumption of sheep meat is just over nine pounds annually.

Still, lamb makes its way onto our plates, particularly at Easter. Lamb dishes are also commonly found on the menus of Indian, Persian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, and even some Chinese restaurants. Preparations and dishes can vary widely, which means there are many lamb wine pairing possibilities. 

What Makes Lamb Distinctive

Lamb is a red meat with a distinctive flavor: Some people use the term "gamey" or "umami" to describe lamb, as it has a strong, rich, savory flavor that makes beef seem almost bland in comparison. One reason for the difference in taste is that lamb contains branched-chain fatty acids, while beef does not. The branched-chain fatty acids contribute to lamb's more intense flavor. In fact, trimming the fat off a piece of lamb can significantly reduce the intensity of its flavor.

Branched-chain fatty acids are the result of the fermentation of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Interestingly, there has been some research into the addition of branched-chain amino acids to the fermenting yeasts used to make wine. Those wines made with the addition of BCAAs were found to be more complex and aromatic. 

Pairing Wine With Lamb

Pairing wine with lamb isn't terribly difficult. There are many red wines, for example, that are considered classic pairings with grilled or roasted lamb, such as Merlot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Lamb wine pairing can be a bit more challenging when matching a wine with dishes that deviate from straightforward preparations. Curries, stews, and hot pots, for example, have other ingredients that may not pair as well with some red wines. There's also the matter of personal taste: Your enjoyment of a dish will be diminished if paired with a wine that you just don't like.

Wine Pairings for Different Lamb Dishes

When considering the perfect wine for lamb, you must consider how the lamb will be prepared. Below are some ideas for pairing lamb and wine.

Red Wines

Red wines are the standard for lamb pairing, and you usually can't go wrong with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Merlot. Still, there are some pairings that can work better than others, depending on the lamb's preparation.

Lamb chops: Pinot Noir is a classic wine to pair with lamb and often goes well with lamb chops. Lamb chops are tender, and the more delicate body of Pinot Noir, along with its fruitiness, pairs well while also balancing the savoriness of the meat. Merlot can also be a fine choice to pair with lamb, with its rich notes of chocolate and leather balanced out by its relatively soft mouthfeel. 

Lamb shank: Lamb shank is intensely flavorful and needs a wine that can stand up to this intensity. Cabernet Sauvignon, with its rich flavor and tannins, can make an excellent pairing for lamb shank, as does Malbec. 

Shepherd's Pie: This popular Irish dish is made with ground lamb and baked with a topping of mashed potatoes. Famed wine educator, Madeline Puckette, recommends Sangiovese (you may know it as Chianti) because of its high tannins, acidity, and general food-friendliness. 

Rosé

Rosés are another option to pair with lamb and can be particularly refreshing when enjoying an intensely-flavored lamb dish. Stay away, however, from sweet rosés such as pink Moscato or white Zinfandel, and go for a dry Provencal rosé.

It may be worthwhile to seek out a Bandol rosé, which is made with Mourvedre and has a significant amount of structure. This structure allows the wine to be refreshing, while having the body and flavor to stand up to the gamey meat. There are also rosé wines made with Sangiovese grapes that are incredibly food-friendly. 

White Wines

White wines are perhaps the most challenging to pair with lamb as many don't have the body, structure, or flavor to stand up to or complement the meat. Still, there are options, particularly if you're enjoying lamb in Asian dishes. If you're determined to enjoy a relatively standard varietal with a simply prepared lamb dish, bypass Pinot Grigio and instead seek out a substantial Chardonnay

Another option is to try Assyrtiko, a grape indigenous to Greece. Lamb is frequently seen in Greek dishes, so it makes sense that Greek wines pair beautifully. Assyrtiko makes lovely white wines with body and acidity, both of which are essential when pairing with lamb.

If you're enjoying lamb in an Indian curry or a Chinese hot pot, some Rieslings and Gewürztraminers can make excellent pairings. They tend to be slightly sweeter than other white wines, but this sweetness is complimented by acidity. These qualities prevent the wines from clashing with intensely spiced Asian dishes. Another option is Grüner Veltliner, considered the best food-pairing wine of them all. It goes particularly well with Asian foods. 

The Final Word

Actually, there is no final word when it comes to lamb wine pairing. Lamb takes center stage in a range of cuisines and recipes, and your own preferences should guide you when trying out new pairings. Start with tried and true pairings, and then branch out. You might be surprised at what you discover! You can also subscribe to our newsletter for more food pairing tips and new wines for you to try.