We’re putting your wine-related questions to the experts in our Ask the Sommelier series. In this instalment, wine director and head sommelier of New York’s Atomix Jhonel Faelnar recommends the best wines to drink with lamb.
‘Every year, I host a big Easter lunch with a roast leg of lamb as the centrepiece. I can find it a challenge to find wines that stand up to the strong flavour of the meat. I’m in serious need of some crowd-pleasing classics that do the joint justice, as well as some more interesting options for the wine fans I’m cooking for.’
Elijah from Brighton, UK
Sommelier Jhonel Faelnar responds:
‘When pairing wines with food, you need to match the intensity of flavour, or indeed the lightness of flavour, with something that won’t overpower or underperform. The protein or main element of the dish is important, but the sauces also dictate what kind of wine would best suit. With lamb that’s been cooked with heavy spices or richer sauces, I recommend matching with Syrah. Syrah is a grape that pairs well generally with lamb, especially wines coming from the Northern Rhône Valley in France. Wines of this style make a great pairing because they have beautiful black pepper notes and a sort of gamey character as well as a little smoke, which reflect the flavours in lamb when it’s roasted, seared, or even braised.
‘Sometimes lamb also works well with Pinot Noir, depending on how the meat is prepared. For lighter-style dishes, I would go for a Pinot Noir from Burgundy – a very versatile wine in general. It’s a great pairing for lamb if you prefer a wine that’s dry, less about the fruit and more about the earth, bringing out those earthier notes in the lamb. Pinot Noirs from the United States can also bring a lot to the table, especially those from Oregon or Sonoma County because these can have a little bit more fruit that balances out the savouriness of the meat. I would veer away from oaky styles of US Pinot Noir as they can add an extra layer of perfume that you may not necessarily want with an already aromatic dish like lamb.
You want to focus on white wines that have body and maybe a little bit of smoke
‘For an even lighter option, rosé Champagne, or sparkling rosé in general works well with lamb because it brings that red-fruited flavour to the table. The acidity of these wines is very refreshing against the rich flavours of the meat, and the bubbles cleanse the palate after each bite. These wines are a slightly riskier choice as they’re not a classic pairing, but for lighter dishes like lamb seared and served pink with spring vegetables, they can really liven up the mood of the meal. The UK has several amazing sparkling wine-focused estates and so that’s a great place to source your wines from – whether it’s from Nyetimber or Chapel Down, there’s a lot of great stuff over there.
‘For your white wine drinkers, you want to focus on whites that have body and maybe a little bit of smoke. A great option is a still white wine from Jerez in Spain using Palomino grapes, which have a smokiness and savoury character that matches well with the sear on your lamb. Godello wines from Bierzo in northern Spain could be another great pairing as they have a little bit of body and enough texture to not get lost among the flavours of your meal, along with the acidity to cut through the richness.
‘Another slightly riskier option for your more winey guests is orange wine, as it has the structure of a red wine but with the lighter flavours – so it can really stand up to the strong flavours of your roast lamb dish. Orange wine works particularly well as a pairing because of those gamey flavours in lamb, so pairing the meat with an orange wine with a unique, aromatic nose could be a great way to match up to those. I’d recommend going for orange wines from Bergenland and Steiermark in Austria, made using Gruner Veltliner or Weissburgunder grapes, as they’re versatile, delicious wines, with light skin contact that gives the wine enough bite to pair nicely with the strong flavours of lamb.’
Interview by Louella Berryman