What to Pour with Lamb?
By Ann Marie Thornton
Lamb is such a harbinger of springtime to me. As a child, I loved the bright green mint jelly that accompanied a roast leg of lamb at my grandmother’s table. As an adult, I’ve experimented with lamb’s versatility in stews and curries, but when spring arrives, I crave a simply seasoned roast with a touch of freshly snipped rosemary and a table filled with family. These days our tastes have drifted to a tender medium-rare. Such lamb, delicate yet often a bit gamey, calls out for a medium-bodied red wine with character, perhaps a Cru Beaujolais, Syrah, Malbec or Carménère.
A Cru Beaujolais makes a lovely pairing with lamb. Each has rich flavor and complex aromas, and the dark berry fruit complements lamb’s distinctive flavor. Beaujolais is crafted from Gamay Noir grapes often fermented whole in a process called carbonic maceration where the grapes are not crushed but instead burst under the pressure caused by fermentation. This process creates distinctive aromas of tropical fruit that are characteristic of the wine. Cru Beaujolais is rich, tannic and capable of aging two to 10 years, and should not to be confused with the light, fruity Nouveau Beaujolais, the wine released shortly after harvest on the third Thursday of November, which ought to be enjoyed within a year or so. Cru Beaujolais comes from 10 villages in the region with Morgon being among the most highly regarded.
The signature Côtes du Rhône blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre is another classic pairing with lamb with a bit more body and acidity than Beaujolais. On occasion, we’ve reached for an elegant Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but even an entry level Côtes du Rhône AOC such as a prolific Guigal offers delightful notes of cherry, blackcurrant and plum with plenty of spice and black pepper and an herbaceous quality. The Southern Rhône has scrubby hillsides with wild sage, rosemary, lavender and other herbes de Provence. These enticing herbaceous notes are often present in the bouquet of the local wines and seem to be an inherent part of the Mediterranean terroir. When lamb is seasoned with rosemary or other savory herbs, a GSM from the Rhone or neighboring Languedoc-Roussillon provides a perfect accent.
In Northern Rhone and Australia, Syrah is often bottled as a single-varietal rather than as a GSM blend. Rich and bold, Syrah has meaty aromas that are more apparent bottled on its own and call out for a roast with crisp, caramelized edges. A Shiraz from Australia is typically inky purple with blackberry, blueberry, and pepper. Farmer’s Leap from Padthaway in South Australia offers a great backbone of peppery spice and luscious dark fruit with hearty meaty notes and is quite savory with lamb.
A spicy, aromatic Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina, with black fruit and sour cherry complements lamb beautifully. Its medium acidity and medium tannins balance the equally moderate fattiness of the lamb. Pour a glass, and then tilt it to study the color and admire the magenta rim around the opaque purple center. That dark color pattern and lush black fruit flavor are classic Malbec. We tried a 2014 El Salvaje from the Uco Valley with wonderful dark fruit, balance and chalky tannins that was both elegant and satisfying with lamb.
A Chilean Carménère is another excellent pairing. In addition to a nose of blackberry and plum, Carménère often has those classic pyrazine notes of green bell pepper that one typically associates with Bordeaux. Indeed, this dark-skinned grape variety hails from Bordeaux, where it was wiped out during the phylloxera epidemic but continued thriving in Chile, where it was recognized in the 1990s. These bell pepper, and sometimes minty, herbaceous notes bring out the earthiness of the lamb, much I suppose as Grandma’s mint jelly provided that sweet and savory element that delighted my palate so many years ago. Carménère also often has a note of cocoa powder. A rich, velvety 2015 Escheverria Gran Reserva Carménère from the Curico Valley accentuates tender, medium-rare lamb with deep berry fruit and rounded tannin, and if there’s chocolate for dessert, save a half glass to savor those together.
All these medium-bodied reds offer both red and black fruit, raspberry and cherry swirling with blackberry and plum, as well as earthy, herbaceous tones to complement roast lamb. With elegance and subtlety, they round out a savory meal and add flair to a celebration. Cheers!