While mostly associated with Easter celebrations, Lamb is also a great option for your Christmas meal as an alternative to Turkey, Ham or Beef.
It’s texture and affinity to strong seasonings suggest this is a perfect meat to be enjoyed in the bleakness of winter rather than at the arrival of Spring. And Lamb at Christmas is no less, if not more, symbolic than the default turkey.
Finding the perfect wine to enjoy with lamb is not a straightforward task though. The meat itself, as well as the ingredients it can be cooked with, can have such different textures and flavours. But it is a fun and worthwhile endeavour; a good wine and lamb pairing can really bring out the best of both.
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When choosing wine to pour with lamb you must consider three main aspects:
Age of the lamb
You can hardly compare the structure and flavour of a baby lamb to that of a mutton. ‘Baby/milk fed’ lamb, a specialty in southern Europe, has a distinctively soft texture to which structured aged reds, such as Bordeaux or Rioja, can serve as a good counterpoint with their mellowed tannins and earthy aromas. The meat of an older animal, on the other hand, has a somewhat earthy character in itself calling for a younger, more fruit-driven wine, with a certain acid drive. A Chianti Classico or a Langhe Nebbiolo would be good options. A Naoussa Xinomavro or a Northern Rhône Syrah, with their distinctive tapenade-like savoury aromas, would also be great choices.
If the accompanying ingredients (more on that below) can condition the flavour profile of a lamb recipe, the cooking method can greatly change the structure of the meat as well.
If you’re planning to simply grill some lamb chops with Mediterranean herbs or serve a piece of baby lamb pink, go for a lighter style that will allow the more refined flavours to shine and the softness of the meat to be fully enjoyed. It should still have firm tannins, so a Pinot Noir or a Mencía would do a very good job. Another great option is a rosé Champagne!
Slow-roasting will make for a fattier meal with more intensity of flavour, and you will need a wine to offset, while supporting, the mouth-coating richness. Go for something robust yet refreshing, such as an orange wine, an oaked Chardonnay or a dark rosé. If you would like to stick to red wine, then consider a Beaujolais or an Etna red.
Seasoning, spices and sauces
One the most common, and most fatal, mistakes in food and wine pairing is to look at the core ingredient — lamb in this case — without considering the spices and herbs it will be cooked with, or the sauces that it will be served with. These can in fact be more important than the base protein itself.
A more simple, Mediterranean style of cooking, lends itself to a wide variety of styles, from savoury young reds, to rosé fizz by way of aged bottles of classics such as Chianti or Barolo.
British stews, hotpots and pies call for a wine that can add complexity, without overwhelming, and give more dimensions to dishes that are based on quite simple flavours – root vegetables, stock. Go for wines with restrained tannins and freshness of fruit – a Côtes du Rhône Villages or a South African Cinsault are two good options.
For lamb tagines, or other recipes with African species, go for intense an intense rosé or a skin-fermented white. An amber wine will also pair well with a curry, as will an aromatic Gewürztraminer or a dry, oaked Viognier.
The key with these pairings is, as with everything else when planning your festive meals, to discover your own preferences. Learn through trial and error and, above all, have fun!
10 wines for your Christmas lamb:
Recommendations by Decanter’s editorial team.
Wines grouped by style and ordered by score, in descending order.