Unlock the Secrets to Wine Pairing with Lamb: Easy Tips and Top Wine Picks
When considering a wine pairing with lamb, we think in terms of what compliments a dish rather than hard and fast rules. Certainly, traditional wine and lamb pairings are worth noting, but with the proliferation of lamb recipes, expanding our pairing repertoire is essential.
In our Wine Pairing Guides, we cut out the superfluous information so that you can quickly build your wine know-how. For those of you who want quick suggestions, we give you a list of our Top Picks for a wine pairing with lamb.
We also give you the tools to build your own wine pairing expertise. But first, let’s start with the pairings.
Top Picks at a Glance for Wine Pairing with Lamb
Our best recommendations for a wine pairing with lamb align with traditional choices that experts might call a “match made in Heaven.”
A heavy bodied wine pairs best with rich foods high in fat and chewier in texture, like roast lamb or a rack of lamb.
The most traditional choices for a wine pairing with lamb include three classic grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Bordeaux red blends.
Best Overall: Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Why it’s our favorite:
- Medium price point but pairs with lamb as well as any premium choice.
- Ready to drink now but could be cellared for a few years.
- The richness of the lamb perfectly balances with firm tannins to bring out the subtle sweetness of boysenberry and black currant.
Best Budget: Decoy 2018 Sonoma County Merlot
Why it’s our best for the budget:
- We’re a great fan of the remarkable yet affordable Decoy line from the Duckhorn Vineyards. Guests will guess the wine is from a much higher price point.
- Silky tannins enhance the fruity flavors of black cherry, blueberry, and plum, which is a critically important function of a wine pairing with lamb.
Best Premium to Cellar: Chateau Haut-Brion 2015
Why it’s our best premium worth the wait:
- Some occasions are worthy of our finest wines. I would set this bottle aside for a special dinner sometime after 2023 but a bit longer is even better, especially if you will pair it with a sumptuous rich meal.
- Although the price is a reach, it’s one of those expensive French red wines that is accessible given the right occasion or special meal.
Wine Pairing with Lamb by Cut of Meat
Crown Roast of Lamb: La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva 2012
A silky, intense garnet red blending of primarily Tempranillo grapes with Garnacha, producing an elegant balance. Enjoy now or save for years ahead.
To find a wine worthy of a crown roast, we journeyed to Spain’s most famous wine region where the Tempranillo grape is champion.
“With its beautiful rolling landscapes, medieval hamlets, and exquisite wines, the La Rioja region is Spain’s Tuscany,” according to Cellar Tours.
“Food and wine lovers will be in heaven in Rioja, with soul-satisfying dishes on offer like baby lamb chops roast over grapevines, velvety bean and slightly spicy chorizo stews, sautéed vegetable “menestras,” and more.”
In our guide to a Manchego cheese wine pairing, we suggest two Rioja Reserve wines that also pair well with lamb:
Lamb Stew: Bodegas Lan Rioja Crianza 2017
Lan’s most famous wine and best illustrates their innovation in using hybrid oak barrels with French and American oak. Tasting note: “A refined nose with predominant notes of red and stone fruits: strawberry, raspberry and peach.”
Lamb stew, a universal comfort food, provides people around the world a warm, nutritious meal. Lamb stews also take on the flavors of home no matter where home happens to be for you.
Cooking is a delightful way to travel the world from home, and these recipes will be sure to take you on a world tour.
An Irish lamb stew traditionally features carrots and potatoes, but you might find additional vegetables such as cabbage and leeks, as in this recipe from The Spruce Eats.
Tori Avey uncovers a 1936 Sweedish lamb stew recipe in a cookbook dedicated to three Sweedish princesses. What makes this stew different? Pears and string beans!
In Armenian tradition, the men are the ones who prepare the celebratory lamb stew. A secret to their flavorful stew is to use lamb meat with the bone and to layer the flavors, say Maria Ushakova, a Canadian who loves to cook Russian and Armenian dishes.
According to global food blogger Sasha Martin, the key to a tender, flavorful lamb stew is to simmer, never boil. This lamb stew recipe from Chad includes tomato paste and okra.
A favorite among global cooks, a Morrocan lamb stew bursts with spices of the region – cumin, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander. The stew’s sweet undertones come from apricots or dates.
Grilled lamb chops or kebabs: Mohua Pinot Noir 2017
Soft tannins in a fruit-forward wine with bright flavors of wild raspberry, black currant, and sweet spice. This Pinot Noir is bursting with floral beauty worthy of the majestic beauty and fertile valleys of the region.
The three grape varietals used in this Mohua Pinot Noir are sourced in the southernmost grape growing region in the world – Central Otago, known for its grand vistas and vineyards.
Grilled chops and kebabs are a lighter lamb dish and don’t require a full-bodied red wine. Grilled chops or kebabs can handle the lighter tannins in a Pinot Noir. However, if roasting the lamb chops, you might want to stay with a Bordeaux unless your recipe has lighter flavors.
What You Need to Know about Lamb
How we cook lamb and the spices we use can make a significant difference in our choices for a wine pairing with lamb. Although Americans are slow to embrace a new red meat, more and more backyard farmers are raising small flocks of sheep.
I’m from Oklahoma, and we pride ourselves on being smack dab in the middle of beef country. It’s what’s for dinner! We are creatures of habit and stick with what we grew up eating.
We also like affordable cuts of meat. Lamb can be pricey.
However, as I lean more toward Farm-to-Table local food choices for my family, serving lamb for dinner on occasion isn’t such a foreign concept or too expensive. Cooking with lamb is also a good way of trying different ethnic recipes.
At one time, finding cuts of lamb was a difficult proposition – and still can be in some areas – but speciality butchers, boutique grocers, and even some large grocery chains offer various cuts. Not to mention, farmers markets can also be a great place to find lamb meat.
My new home base in Connecticut offers me a diverse selection of foods for both home cooking and in restaurant choices.
“It perplexes me why more people in the Western Hemisphere and Australia don’t eat lamb when it is so tasty and has found favor in Africa, Europe and Asia,” writes Dr. Mike Rosmann, an Iowa farmer and psychologist. “There is a delicious reason why sheep — and their cousins, goats — were the first livestock to be domesticated by our ancestors: Their meat tasted great and was nutritious!”
How to create a wine pairing with lamb
Fortunately, we don’t have to study to become a sommelier to make a good go at a wine pairing with lamb or other foods. We have a few rules of thumb and guidelines to help us make outstanding choices.
I turn to these five tips and six guidelines for selecting wines with my home meals, but committing this information to memory is also helpful for dining out. However, at fine dining establishments, trust the experts they have on staff to direct you to the best choices for local wines.
No. 1 Rule of Thumb: Your personal taste matters. Wine pairing can be quite subjective.
No. 2 Rule of Thumb: In general, pair rich foods with rich wines and mild foods with mild wines.
No. 3 Rule of Thumb: Pair the wine with the dominant flavor of the dish, not the meat. How dishes are cooked or seasoned can make more of a difference than the meat. For example, grilled lamb chops with light flavor notes can take a softer tannin wine than a roasted lamb.
No. 4 Rule of Thumb: Spicy dishes are difficult to pair with wine. Drink a beer instead.
No. 5 Rule of Thumb: There’s only one star of the show, and it’s either going to be the wine or the food. You have to decide which one before you make your pairing choice.
Next, we turn to six universal guidelines on the characteristics of wines: Acidity, Tannin, Sweetness, Saltiness, Alcohol, and Oak.
If you only remember one of these six guidelines, this is the one. Acidity refers to the tartness in food – like lemon’s pucker power – and the acid in the wine. They have an inverse relationship.
Try this example. Take a sip of wine. Then, suck on a lemon. Take another sip of wine. It probably tastes a lot sweeter now. It’s a matter of perception. The wine and food work together to create new perceptions.
A low-acid wine is more difficult to pair with food. High acid wines, even inexpensive ones, can really be pepped up by using the wine to “cut” through fatty, salty foods. Acidic wines also pair best with tart foods. The wine will come off as thirst-quenching!
Try a crisp California Sauvignon Blanc like Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2019 with your next seafood platter.
Have you ever encountered a bitter taste when drinking an overly steeped cup of tea? If you have, welcome to tannins. Younger red wines tend to have more tannins, which works well with fatty foods such as lamb, but in general, as reds age, the tannins soften.
The tannins come from grape skins and the oak of the wooden barrels. The protein and fats in fatty foods and meats will bind to the tannins and reduce astringency and bitterness. This in turn enhances the sweetness of the wine.
In addition to red meats and foods made with cream and butter, you can pair red wines with aged cheese.
This brings us to what is perhaps another rule of thumb. Sweet wines should always be paired with sweet foods and the wine should be sweeter than the food.
There are some traditions, however, that take a salty food like a Stilton cheese and pair it with a Port, as has been a long-held tradition in the U.K. You could also pair a slightly sweet savory dish, such as a Thai curry, with a sweeter wine.
As a rule of thumb, white and sparkling wines pair better with salty foods than do red wines. The higher acidity in white wines is a good contrast to salty foods; whereas the tannins in red wine can accentuate the saltiness.
But, remember, there are exceptions, such as the example I mentioned above for pairing Stilton cheese with port.
Mild wines have about 7-10% alcohol and taste lighter. Higher alcohol content wines (13-14%) have more texture and weight. That’s why red wines can “cut” through fatty, rich foods. When the word “full-bodied” is applied to a wine, it refers to higher alcohol content.
Think of wine texture as hotness or warmth. Reds have more texture.
You wouldn’t want to pair a high alcohol content wine with spicy foods because it will increase the feeling of heat on the palate and back of throat. Evenso, there’s another effect. Pairing a high alcohol wine with spicy food will make the wine taste sweeter.
The idea is that as the wine alcohol content increases – referred to as ABV (alcohol by volume) – the fewer choices we have with food pairings.
If you’re unsure of what food and wine to pair, a medium-bodied (11-12% ABV) is a safe choice. Some experts would put the medium ABV of a wine at 12.5 to 13.5%.
Medium-bodied red wines include:
- Domaine de la Noblaie Chinon Rouge Les Chiens-Chiens 2018, a Cabernet Franc from France.
- Piancornello Brunello di Montalcino 2015, a Sangiovese from Tuscany, Italy.
- Las Rocas Garnacha 2017, a Grenache from Spain.
- Broadbent 10 Year Boal Madeira from Madeira, Portugal.
Many of the flavors we associate with wines are actually due to the time spent in oak barrels. Red wines are greatly improved through aging in oak. Benefits of oak include:
- Softening of young wine’s harsh characteristics
- Creates smooth, silky texture
- Stabilizes the wine’s clarity and color
- Enhances the flavor of wine
The two most common sources of oak are America and France, with the latter being the most expensive. American oak impart flavors of coconut and vanilla. French oak barrels add spicy flavors such as clove and nutmeg.
So, what does all of this mean to you when pairing wine and food?
The answer lies in much of the discussion you just read above. Foods can exaggerate the oaky flavors. Full-bodied red wines are going to have more intense oak flavors; therefore, these need to be paired with more intense, rich foods.
For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon has much more oak influence than a Chenin Blanc or Riesling. Unoaked white wines are said to taste fresher and have a higher acidity level. You may sometimes hear these wines referred to as “naked.”
Unoaked white wines:
- Kendall-Jackson Avant Unoaked Chardonnay 2019 – cold fermented in stainless steel tanks. Winemaker notes: “Showcasing crisp green apple, citrus and tropical fruit notes, the resulting wine is youthful and lively, providing a superb affinity for food.”
- Mer Soleil Silver Unoaked Chardonnay 2018 from California’s Central Coast. Winemaker notes: “Entry on the palate is round and soft, infused with flavors of apricot, Meyer lemon, and the crispness of the first peaches of the season.”
- Smoking Loon Steelbird Unoaked Chardonnay 2019 from California. Winemaker notes:“Showcases vibrant aromas and flavors of pineapple, green apple and lemon rind. Refreshing, yet rich, flavors are rounded out by a pleasant citrus acidity.”
Like most things, wine pairing takes practice. In our Wine Pairing with Lamb, we’ve given you not only some good suggestions to get you started but also foolproof tools to help you make your own choices.
Before we go, here are a few of our favorite kitchen basics to get your started with trying some of the lamb recipes we included here.
Best Roasting Pans
Skillets for Lamb Chops
- Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet – Utopia Kitchen (12.5 Inch)
- Macy’s Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron 11.75″ Skillet