wine Features
Some Wine with Your Lamb, Dad?

Leg of Lamb Roasted in Foil

Lamb Vindaloo

Pecan and Molasses Crusted Spring Lamb

Grilled Rack of Lamb with Kumquat Chutney

Berbere Braised Lamb Shank

By Jim Clarke
April 2007

My father never liked lamb, so I never encountered it until college: my Greek roommate had me over for their family Easter celebrations, which included a whole lamb roasted on a spit over an open fire. I had been missing out; lamb offers more flavor than most cuts of beef, while avoiding the occasional toughness or overwhelming intensity of mutton. And it goes great with wine. Traditional lamb dishes can be pretty straightforward when it comes to wine pairing. For example, Costas Spiliadis’ Leg of Lamb Roasted in Foil uses classic touches – rosemary, thyme – to subtly flavor the meat. Any medium to full-bodied red with balanced tannins is going to work fairly well here; for a truly classic touch, go with a Bordeaux like the Château Leoville-Poyferré 1998. It’s got lots of dark fruit, some cedary spice, and smooth tannins – expressive, but not over-the-top, so it works well with the straightforward presentation of the lamb.

But what about when lamb goes off the beaten path? Asian cooking can make life difficult for go-to pairings like Bordeaux, Rioja, or many Mediterranean reds. A recipe like Durga Prasad’s Lamb Vindaloo has lots of spice going on: coriander, chiles, cardamom…in most cases, the tannins of a red wine are going to clash with that heat. It’s still red meat, though, so a white wine is going to need some umph to balance well. But no oak, which can also be unfriendly to hot spices. Alsace whites fit the bill, especially Pinot Gris, which has great weight and richness. I like the Domaine Schoffit Rangen Grand Cru Pinot Gris 2004 here. It’s not a fruity wine – aromas of smoke, macadamia, and mushroom dominate – and it’s full, almost oily texture cleans out the heat of the spices and at the same time doesn’t lose itself to meat’s own intensity.

Another weighty white that lends itself to lamb is sherry. An old-school dry sherry like the Bodegas Toro Albalá "Viejísimo" Solera 1922 Amontillado is more overtly muscular than most Pinot Gris. Whereas the Schoffit worked by contrasting with the vindaloo spices, I like the walnut and molasses notes of this sherry as a complement to Geoff Gardner’s Pecan and Molasses Crusted Spring Lamb. One caveat: it’s not fortified, but years of water evaporation during aging have brought the alcohol content up to about 21%, so sip your sherry if you want to make it through a whole meal.

Nonetheless, red wine will always be the mainstay of lamb pairings, even if a recipe like Mischel Nischan’s Grilled Rack of Lamb with Kumquat Chutney tries to put a kink in your plans. The problem here is acidity; while the chutney includes some darker fruit flavors, it also has lots of acidic citrus elements. Only a few reds can match both sides of that equation; Barbera is probably the best of them. The Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba “Fides” 2001 shows how: black cherry aromas, some earth and pepper, but with refreshing acidity and soft tannins. It stands up to the meat but doesn’t argue with the chutney.

You can even get some of those spices in Durga Prasad’s earlier recipe without the heat in Anette Grecchi-Gray’s Berbere Braised Lamb Shank, a full-flavored recipe that can accommodate a hearty red. The powerful flavor of braised meat like this goes well with peppery wines; many Syrahs will do the job nicely. I like the Niels Verburg Shiraz 2004 from South Africa; good, plummy fruit, lots of meatiness, and a good dose of black pepper on the finish. Even my Dad couldn't argue with that.

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