Pairing wine with foods can be a difficult task, especially when a particular food, such as lamb, can be prepared in a variety of different ways. Although red wines are almost always paired with red meat, the type of red that can be paired with lamb meat depends entirely on the way the lamb is prepared and on the spices and flavorings used. The golden rule is “the heavier the recipe, the heavier the wine.”
Pinot Noir is the classic go-to wine for lamb dishes. Lamb meat is naturally a lean delicate meat, and Pinot Noir is among the lightest of the medium-bodied reds available. Pinor Noir is generally described as having strong fruit flavors such as cherry and strawberry along with a few subtle spices such as cinnamon, mint, violet and smokey tones. It is a very low-tannin red, therefore is is soft and silky on the palate. It is best served with lamb dishes prepared with fruit sauces, honey, mushrooms or garlic. Thick hearty spicy stews generally are too overpowering for Pinot Noir.
Merlot is more suitable for lamb dishes that are slightly heavier with thick sauces and rich creams or butters. Merlot is medium- to full-bodied red with hints of coffee, chocolate, licorice and plum. Some varieties of Merlot can be very tannic, almost on par with Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot bests suits lamb stews, soups, grilled lamb chops and braised lamb stewed with herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaves and pepper. In most hearty full bodied lamb dishes, Merlot can be paired almost interchangeably with a Cabernet.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc
As with the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc should only be paired with heavy lamb dishes that are rich in sauces and spice. Both are tannic dry reds, however, Cabernet Franc tends to be more fruity and less intense than Cabernet Sauvignon, which is regarded as the driest of the red wines. Pair the Cabernet Franc with Mediterranean style flavors of lamb recipes with ingredients including olives, zucchini, olive oils, bell peppers and tomatoes. The classic lamb pairing with a Cabernet Sauvignon is a rack of lamb. Lamb racks are usually prepared with bountiful herbs and a hearty rich sauce heavy on currents, onions, plums and molasses-like flavors.
Though the aforementioned four wines are most commonly paired with lamb, they are not the only wines that would compliment the meat. Lamb can be successfully paired with many red wines, including Syrah (sometimes called Shiraz), Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Barbera, Gamay, Tempranillo, Malbec and Carmenere. Each of these wines has its own flavor profile, and depending on your personal preference, you may like the flavors these wines bring out in your dish.
References and ResourcesWine Intro: Lamb and Wine
BC Wine Basics: Food and Wine Pairings
How to Cook Gourmet: Food and Wine Pairing