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Wine with lamb: Great styles to try

From cassis-rich Cabernet with your roast to slow-roasted shoulder with Grenache blends or cutlets with a fresh Pinot Noir, there are plenty of great options if you're planning to cook lamb this Christmas.

Wine with lamb at a glance

Style of lamb

Wine style

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)

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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.

Cabernet or Syrah with roast lamb – medium to well done

This is a classic. 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 South Australia’s McLaren Vale or some of the great-value Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM) blends in Languedoc-Roussillon back in France.

If none of these sound appealing, how about 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. A well-balanced Brunello will have 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.

Updated in December 2020 by Chris Mercer. Originally published in March 2016.

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