Wine with lamb at a glance
Style of lamb
Lamb cutlets or young lamb served pink
Pinot Noir | Rosé Champagne | Bandol rosé
Roast lamb served medium to well done
Cabernet Sauvignon | Syrah or Shiraz | Rioja Reserva
Slow roasted shoulder of lamb or lamb shank
Grenache | Brunello di Montalcino | Gevrey-Chambertin (red Burgundy)
Choosing a wine with lamb depends on the cut
Many red wines from the classic grape varieties are a wonderful, natural match with lamb. But it’s important to pay close attention to the cut of meat you’ve acquired, plus how you are going to cook it and serve it.
Below, we’ve looked at the three most popular ways to cook lamb.
Pinot Noir or rosé Champagne with young lamb – served pink
Lighter, tender lamb meat demands a wine that will not swamp and overpower the delicate flavours and sublime texture. If you do reach for a full bodied red, you run the risk of ruining your meat.
A fresher style of Pinot Noir from cooler climate regions can combine lovely red berry fruit balanced by earthy notes, fine tannins and good natural acidity.
Those searching for value in Burgundy could look to less-known areas on the up, such as Rully, where the red have stepping out of Chardonnay’s shadow, or Fixin at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits, and fresher styles from Givry further south, in the Côte Chalonnaise.
Some top producers have outposts in these regions, and it’s worth looking at Bourgogne Rouge from the best growers in general, said Decanter’s Burgundy critic, Tim Atkin MW, in a previous article on value Burgundy.
Beyond Burgundy, you have a wealth of options. This could be a chance to see why German Pinot Noir is gaining plaudits, or you could look to fresher styles in New Zealand, Victoria in Australia, Walker Bay in South Africa, Russian River Valley or Anderson Valley in California, and Willamette Valley in Oregon, to name only a few.
If you don’t fancy a delicate red, this is your chance to reach for a weighty rosé such as Tavel or Bandol from the south of France. Don’t believe friends who say rosé wines don’t go with food.
Alternatively, how about upping the tempo with a vintage rosé Champagne?
Pink, tender lamb and a top rosé Champagne is something everyone must try once. This recently reviewed Bollinger Grande Année Rosé 2012 could be a good way to attain a moment of serenity on Easter Sunday, for example.
Cabernet or Syrah with roast lamb – medium to well done
This is the most popular cooking style for lamb at Easter. The meat will be richer in flavour and not quite as tender, so a roast like this can handle a fuller-bodied red wine.
Bordeaux blends are made for roast lamb. The young Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wines of the Bordeaux Left Bank are brimming with cassis fruit, backed by a splattering of spiciness and – in the best versions – well-judged oak.
Try a vintage that is more approachable at a younger age, such as 2014, 2011 or 2006 perhaps, but great vintages like 2000 or 1996 could also make a memorable occasion – if you’re lucky enough to have them.
A wine like this will take the meat to an extra dimension, and the bolder tannin levels in your glass should also make the lamb meat feel more tender.
Good Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends can be found across the globe, too, of course.
The regions to look out for are:
- Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand
- California – USA
- Coonawarra & Margaret River – Australia
- Stellenbosch – South Africa
- Argentina and Chile – South America
If you’re not keen on Cab, go for a good Rioja Reserva with some bottle age, or look towards Syrah / Shiraz.
A Northern Rhône Syrah will enhance your roast lamb. Some wines will offer a touch of pepper spice in the glass that can also work beautifully with the texture of the meat.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Brunello with shoulder of lamb
If you’re slow-roasting a shoulder from an older lamb, you’ll be cooking with a lot more fat content on the meat, which holds and seals in the flavour fantastically.
That pronounced, gamey flavour to your roast means that we’re looking for a wine with that great balance of tannin, acidity and a little bottle age to draw out the flavours.
Grenache-based blends from the Southern Rhône, with a few years of bottle age, would fit the bill. This is classic Châteauneuf-du-Pape territory, although you could also look to the exciting area of Cairanne, too.
The Grenache blends of Australia’s McLaren Vale also deserve consideration here, and the best examples will offer lots of juicy, ripe fruit alongside well-integrated oak and tannin if you want to dial up the power.
If none of these sound appealing, then you could also look to bolder styles of red Burgundy, like Gevrey-Chambertin or Pommard, or Spain’s Ribera del Duero region.
A young-ish Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany can also offer a lovely mix of bright red fruit, acidity, tannin and herbal notes.
Brunello must spend at least two years in oak and a minimum of four months in bottle, giving the wine the age it needs to compliment the older lamb, but retaining the tannin to soften the meat and enough natural acidity to cut through those extra layers of fat. This can be a truly sumptuous match.
If you need some help with the cooking, then here is our guide on how to ‘slow cook’ a leg of lamb.
Why lamb at Easter time?
As at Christmas with turkey, Easter has long been associated with lambbut its religious connections most likely pre-date Christianity. For example, lamb has central significance during Passover, although some believe lamb’s place in this Jewish custom is purely sacrificial, rather than on the dinner table.
Controversy over ‘spring lamb’
It may seem natural enough to eat ‘spring lamb’ at Easter in Europe and the US, but young lambs raised on local farms will not necessarily have reached maturity by this point.
Many butchers in the northern hemisphere traditionally sell young, local lamb in early summer, once flavour has had time to develop.
While global sourcing means that lamb is available for most of the year, some people, including British chef Jamie Oliver, have suggested trying alternative meats for Easter or cuts from older animals.
Updated in April 2020 by Chris Mercer. Originally published in March 2016.