Updated: Apr 11
Stereotypes aside, I do love a bit of lamb, preferably of the slow-cooked, caramelised skin variety.
My dad does a very good one, and it was always my favourite iteration of my Myngu’s Sunday lunch. When I reached my teens, I was allowed to “make” the mint sauce, i.e cutting some shop bought mint sauce with malt vinegar – hello lamb and sweet sour freshness! (Also, hello the umami power of vinegar – it all makes sense now!).
Lamb is one of my favourite meats to pair wines to because it lends itself to an array of cooking and garnish variations, not to mention the added implications from the age of the animal and the cut of meat. Reader, if you ever see a wine recommendation that simply states “with lamb”, it’s not enough – drag that author under a spotlight pronto and interrogate – “What? How? When? WI-TTHH!?”
Actually, that goes for anything that reduces a kaleidoscope of pairing possibilities to one noun, but that’s a bone for another day. (mutter mutter).
Easter lamb, therefore may happen in all sorts of ways chez vous, so let’s take a look shall we?
Now, lamb of the lighter, fresher guise, might be something in the form of spring lamb cutlets, cooked pink, dressed with something bright and herbaceous – a herb crust perhaps, salsa verde, gremolata etc needs us to play to the freshness and brightness.
Lighter reds with high acidity with plushness of body to accept the sweetness of the meat but perhaps with something quite angular in its tone to make for an interesting interaction with the angular bits of the dish. “Cool” herbs, piquancy in the form of lemon juice, lemon zest and mustard (one of my favourite tools in the kit) is an opportunity to marry with a wine with a bit of piquancy itself.
By that, what I mean is, by meeting the spiky piquancy head on, we can create a wonderful textural harmony between wine and dish that acts as a framework to enhance all the bright aromatics at play here.
For a more leisurely read, scroll down to the suggestion in bold, but for those in the mood for seeing my long division, by all means, plough on -
First, we need to address the fat, in both the meat and the dressing (lean, but present nevertheless). Fat fixes flavours, but it also covers them, so we need to neutralise the textural sensation of that by slicing through it with acidity and also giving it some tannin to bind with, so for this I’ll leant towards a red.
Alcohol and tannin mop up fat, and as we don’t have a lot of fat going on here, nor do we need a lot of alcohol and tannin, so let’s go with a cooler climate red with high acidity and moderate tannin and alcohol. We do however, need to meet the sweetness of the lamb with a perception of sweetness in the wine and/or smoothness (sweetness needs somewhere soft to land), so a bit of decent ripening won’t hurt and winemaking that’s put some manners on the tannins.
Now for that piquancy. “Minerality” is a highly contested word in the wine world, being both highly vague but also very useful sometimes, when other words fail. I’m going to use it here to refer to that bitter streak you can get in a wine that you detect both as a taste in its bitterness, but also texturally in its astringency – what you imagine crushed slate or granite might feel and taste like. Think about what effect mustard has on your tongue, likewise bitter radicchio and rocket leaves – very similar, in my book, as what this type of minerality in wine does, so by meeting like with like, you create a textural harmony, a bridge to the softer elements of both the dish and the wine, letting the aromatic experience take over.
So now we can look at those aromatics. Look for wines that inherently echo those cool herbs, wines with notes of mint, basil, lovage and anise over what we’ve established, are to be nicely ripe red and almost ripe dark fruit notes, a touch of sweet spice for the lamb itself wouldn’t hurt here either.
Where does that leave us? Predominantly in north-western Spain me thinks! Look for Mencia led wines from Bierzo and pick up any bottle you see with Raul Perez’s name on it. (Thank you Vinostito!) .Mencia field blends from nearby Ribeira Sacra will also do you well here, although perhaps a softer, more fruit forward and less mineral expression. Guimaro is my favourite producer here (wine maker Pedro Rodriguez worked with Perez early on in his ventures, so we’re in very good hands here too!).
Definitely a lot rarer on the market here in Ireland, but an outstanding match for lamb cutlets and salsa verde is a red offering from Rias Baixas – an area that we know better for its whites. The intrepid Wine Mason importers brought in Bastion de la Luna by Forjas del Salnes during the pandemic and I fell in love with it the first time I tried it! They also brought in a really interesting expression of Gamay from the Côte Roannaise, that I think will work quite nicely here too, called Eclat de Granite (clue’s in the name) by Domaine Sérol – do try it if you see it!
Moving towards more hearty affairs of slow roasted lamb shoulders and legs, we can look at more hearty reds too.
Invariably, tender, caramelised skin, slow roasted lamb gets infused with either garlic, rosemary and anchovy, or indeed, all three (YUM), and so we are introduced to more elements that we can make bridges with between wine and dish.
If you’ve made it this far, I’ll spare you the long division for this one, only to say that comfort food needs comfort wine, so less about angles here and more about soft deliciousness in bear-hug form.
There is more fat here, both on the meat itself and the rendered juices of the gravy (there has to be gravy, or I’m leaving!), so again, we do need a bit of tannin to mop up all that goodness, but nothing too heavy handed.
Let’s meet the structure of the dish with a bit of body in the wine, after all, no self-respecting roast dinner would be seen without roasties and veggies, so there’s a bit more for the wine to contend with at the table, therefore it’s perfectly fine for it to take up a bit more room.
We want tannin yes, but we also want softness remember, (or at least, those of you into long division do) to cushion the sweetness of the lamb and it is possible to have both in a wine. Where there is fat however, we also need acidity, so we do still need some tension in our wine.
To that end I must say that the anchovy in our lamb, works as a wine buffer, adding umami and unctuousness and rounding off soft edges, so don’t be afraid if you feel your wine has a little too much muscle to begin with, it will mellow.
Finally, those aromatics – rosemary, mint, laurel, eucalyptus, tobacco leaf, darker meat, darker fruit, more savouriness in the wine, coupled with acidity, body and polite tannins – lots of options here!
We can stay in Spain but head to warmer climes such as Rioja (particularly older wines that have had more time maturing in oak, so look for Rioja Crianza and Rioja Reserva). Rafael López de Heredia, Bodega Y Viñedos Artuke, Remelluri are all solid names for this one.
We can go to northern Italy and enjoy the wonder that is the Teroldego grape making what I like to call, the eiderdown duvet of red wines.
Grown in vineyards nestled on a valley plain in Trentino, with the Dolomite mountains acting as giant windbreakers, it means that the grapes reach great phenolic ripeness, full of acidity, fruit and colour and the resulting wine is plush, soft with smooth tannins. Everything we want in the comfort of a big red wine here, but without being too smothering.
Enrico Fantasia of Grapecircus Wines has seen his patience (and his kind placations for those us with without!) rewarded with the recent arrival of the long- awaited 2015 vintage of “Dannato” Teroldego Rotaliano by Redondèl, joining its little brother, “Indulgente”. Fight amongst yourselves for that one!
Lastly, there is a more classic wine that I would quite happily sit down to here, and credit must go to Gareth and Gavin Keogh of Wines Direct for securing such a gem. Château Haut-Segottes , Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AOC, 2015 is an incredible wine from a modest, 9 hectare estate situated within spitting distance of the great Grand Cru Classé A Château Cheval Blanc. It is owned by the inimitable Mme. Danielle Meunier, now in her eighties, who follows organic and biodynamic principals to farm her estate. You can serve this with a bit less modesty than that, that’s made with – it is an absolute STEAL of a wine and very worthy of pride of place at the table this Easter.