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The Epsom Derby is one of the most important events in the UK horse racing calendar; in fact, Queen Elizabeth has only missed two of them since 1946, when the then-princess attended. But while most come for the races themselves, what you might not realize is that it’s at the derby that you’ll also find some of the best wine with lamb pairings.
The derby, which began in 1780, includes two days of festivities at the end of May and is live-streamed on outlets such as ITV Hub and ITV1. On the first day, coined ‘Ladies Day,’ there are a number of must-see events, including races fighting for the Investec coronation cup.
It’s considered one of the world’s most famous flat races and continues to draw in large audiences both in person and through national viewers to watch one to three-year-old colts and fillies compete in races just under twenty-five hundred meters.
But what’s a derby without some ways to celebrate? The Epsom Derby, known as the most important of the five classic derby races, also has included a signature fair since the 1800s, which at the time drew in a variety of entertainers–such as clowns and musicians–and was even depicted by William Powell Frith, a genre painter of the 1800s, in The Derby Day, a rich oil painting first showcased at the Royal Academy in the mid-1800s.
Today much of that festive mood lives on, but one of the most popular offerings in 2022 will likely be the six thousand bottles of sparkling wine, offered courtesy of the UK Jockey Club. Coates & Seely, a vineyard in Whitchurch, England will be providing the bottles and also offer prizes to the race winners.
But even more so, there will be wines specifically paired with signature British dishes. While it’s not entirely clear exactly what dishes will be served, it was announced that there will be wine pairings for smoked salmon, as well as for a lamb.
Why do people care about wine pairing?
Festivities aside, wine pairing is popular at almost any event that involves signature wines. You’ll find wine pairing menus at many upper scale restaurants, other celebrations, and maybe even at a dinner party, you attend.
Wine pairing isn’t simply about ambiance or making an event feel more refined. The best wine pairings enhance the flavor of both the wine and your meal, making for a sensational dining experience.
Grant Achatz, chef, and owner of Alinea, a Chicago based restaurant featuring New American dishes and boasts a three-star Michelin status, actually spent a few years pulling double duty, working at a vineyard as an assistant winemaker, while still striving to become a chef. What his time taught him was to think of wine and food not separately but as a pairing.
In what he described as the ‘language of wine,’ he grew to appreciate how much our experience of wine is impacted by all of our senses, and how critical proper wine pairings with food are.
While he has said there are no strict rules when it comes to wine pairing, at Alinea he typically starts with flavor profiles as well as aromas to pair wine with his signature dishes.
Wine pairing can take a decent dining experience and create an experience, and the best wine with lamb pairings emphasize the rich notes of the meat, while also brightening them with sweeter and earthy undertones.
How does wine pairing work?
If you want to find the best wine with lamb pairings, first you need to understand how wine pairings work in general.
Wine pairings are two-fold: based on flavor notes and aromas, as well as characteristics of the wine itself, and the characteristics of the food the wine is being served with. Many popular restaurants also take wine trends into consideration. For instance, different states across the country prefer white wine over red wine and vice-versa. Other trends, like newly emerging signature wine blends, play a role in what wine is more likely to be paired or suggested with your meal.
But the more important aspects of proper wine pairing involve taking into account the characteristics of both the wine itself and the food itself, which an emphasis on flavors, textures, aromas, and composition. How something feels–heavy, smooth, for instance–also plays a role.
The best wine with lamb pairings, for instance, take into account the heavier and stronger flavors of lamb and pair it with wine that will highlight but also create balance to some of those flavors and aromas.
What characteristics are considered when looking at wine for the best pairings?
The characteristics experts look at to create proper wine pairings are important no matter what you’re pairing with, though of course what characteristics are desirable does differ. Here are some key characteristics of wine that get attention:
- Acidity. Acidity doesn’t sound inherently pleasant, but it actually adds flavor to the wine. The level of acidity refers to the tartness and is measured on the pH scale, with a lower number indicating a more acidic wine. In technical terms, most acid levels in wine derive from tartaric, malic, lactic, and citric acid, as well as a handful of others. Wines that come from cooler regions tend to exhibit higher levels of acidity due to a slower ripening process (grapes lose acidity as they become riper).
- Body. Body refers to the mouthfeel–how heavy or light the wine feels in your mouth. There are full and light body versions of red, white, and rose wines.
- Finish. The finish is simple the lingering effect of flavors after you’ve had some wine to drink. The greater the finish, the longer those flavor notes will linger.
- Flavor notes. Is the wine more citrus based? Does it have softer notes, like cocoa and vanilla? Other common flavor note categories include earthy, flowery/ perfumed, and salty. Flavor notes are taken into consideration as to what flavors in the food you’re serving you want to directly enhance and/or complement.
- Tannins. Tannins are the naturally occurring elements in wine that impact how dry the wine tastes, and, if used in cooking, produce a more sticky residue. Red wines typically are heavier in tannins than white wines, but there are also low tannin red wines, including Gamay, Grenache, and Barbera.
- Dry vs sweet. Dry wine has little to no remaining sugars after being processed. Wine is typically considered dry, semi-dry and sweet.
- Aging. While how long a wine has been aged is somewhat taken into consideration, more important is how the wine has been aged. A wine that had been barrel aged, for instance, tends to have a stronger flavor but with hints often of vanilla.
What characteristics of lamb are important for wine pairing?
Lamb is considered rich, red meat that is known to have a stronger taste than many other red types of meat. Though some have considered lamb more gamey meat, Sarah Perry, writer for Chowhound, argues that prepared well and at its best, lamb is actually meant to be fresh, and just a little ‘grassy’. It’s also succulent, rich, and full flavored, often leading rather than complementing a dish.
In general, lamb tends to:
- Be firmer than chicken but less firm than beef
- Possess a strong initial flavor with a softer aftertaste
- Contain sweet notes
- Is juicy, and rich
What impacts how lamb tastes, and what wine it should be paired with?
Of course, wine pairings are not as simple as matching the primary flavor notes and characteristics of the food it’s being served alongside. The cooking method greatly impacts how lamb tastes, as well as how it was raised.
- Grass fed lamb tends to be leaner, while the grain-fed lamb is higher in fat
- Slow cooked lamb has a more subtle flavor, while the roasted lamb is stronger
- Grilling lamb produces a smokier and chewier meat
- How well do you serve lamb is also important. Younger lamb is often served pink and tends to be milder and more tender; medium to well-done lamb tends to be more aromatic
What are the different ways lamb can be prepared?
Going into a bit more detail as to how lamb can be prepared helps us find the best wine pairings. The most popular preparation for lamb include:
- Braising. Braising is a form of slow cooking where the lamb is initially browned, then cooked, often with vegetables, in liquid–usually on the stove top but also in slow cookers or in the oven. Braising helps the meat become very tender and develops flavors that tend to be complex but milder. Racks, shoulder, and shanks all tend to be favored for this method because they are more fibrous.
- Roasting produces a more bold and signature flavor. Roasting is usually reserved for lamb racks and loin that are on the more tender side and involves cooking meat, uncovered, to produce a crispy exterior.
- Grilling lamb produces a smoky finish and is used for burgers and lamb chops; it too has a stronger flavor than braised or slow cooked lamb.
How do I find the best wine pairings for lamb?
Using everything we’ve just discussed above, here’s a quick guide to the best wine with lamb pairings:
What level of acidity?
For most lamb dishes, you’ll want to go for a low to mildly acidic wine. Acidic wines are better paired with lighter dishes like chicken and fish; the richness of lamb is better suited for a slightly acidic wine–wines like Riesling and Pinot Grigio are better avoided with the exception of lamb curries.
Red or white wine?
Typically, red wine is favored for lamb pairings. As robust, rich and heavier meat, red wine not only hold up better but is more able to meet the rich flavors of the lamb. This is especially true for medium to well-done lamb, as well as a lamb that has been roasted or grilled. One of the exceptions is Riesling, which is preferred for curried lamb and complements the spices and sweet undertones of both tomato based and spicier curries. You can also get by with fuller bodied wines for some cuts of lamb.
Full or light body?
Full bodied wines are also overwhelmingly preferred for most lamb, though a medium to light body red wine for young lamb or lamb that’s been properly braised. A full body red wine like Zinfandel properly complements the richness of the lamb and adds to, rather than is overwhelmed by, the juiciness of the lamb.
What kind of finish should I look for?
You should generally look for a full-bodied, red wine with a long finish. A longer finish is especially preferred for roasted and grilled lamb, as well as cuts like chops, loins, and burgers. If you opt for a wine with a short finish, the flavors risk getting lost.
What flavor notes should I look for in the wine?
The flavor notes you want in your wine does depend on how the lamb has been prepared.
- For more tender, young lamb, look for medium body wine that features red fruits as its main flavors, such as the cherries, raspberries, and strawberries in a Pinot Noir.
- For grilled lamb chops, you want wine he holds up to and complements the more smoky notes. Opt for Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, which combine darker fruit with a touch of pepper, mint, and cedar.
- For the roasted lamb, you also want a dark, richer wine that holds up to the complexity of flavors and richness of the meat. A smoky Malbec or a rich, indulgent Aglianico with cocoa and plum flavor notes are both favorites.
- As a general rule, you want a red wine that exhibits medium to dark fruit notes with either smoky or rich accents; for young lamb, look for a wine that is centered on medium fruits with less heavy accent notes.
What role do tannins play?
Level of tannins should also be taken into consideration when it comes to selecting the best wine with lamb pairings. In most cases, you’re going to want to look for a wine that has firmed to high tannins, which provide structure to hold up to the bolder flavors of the lamb. If you don’t fancy high tannin wines, a wine with moderate tannin levels, such as Zinfandel, will work for lamb shanks and braised lamb.
Dry or sweet?
As is the case for most wine pairings for the main dishes, you’ll mostly be looking at dry wines. However, lamb is interesting in that the flavor is complex and exhibits some naturally sweet notes, especially with younger lamb. Lamb is also served sometimes with sweet jellies–both of which means, as opposed to most meats, some lamb can be served with a sweeter wine if you prefer to emphasize the sweet, as opposed to richer flavor notes. If you’re making lamb curry, you can get by with a semi-dry form of Resiling.
Do I want it aged?
In most cases, aged wine works excellently with lamb, especially lamb that has been roasted or grilled. Oak aging adds complexity and even flavors like vanilla that can bring out lamb’s natural sweetness.
Are there any other factors I should consider?
At the end of the day, at least part of finding the best wine with lamb pairings also comes down to a matter of preference, and also what you serve your lamb with. Curries call for wines with a touch of sweeter notes, while barbequed lamb calls for a wine with a smoky finish. Mint jelly, garlic, and shallots, and spices like cumin all impact whether you want spicy, smoky, or sweet notes in your wine
Frequently Asked Questions
Producing lamb meat is usually cheaper than beef, because of the low cost of the soy-based feeds. Even though it can be cheaper, lamb still offers some great cuts to enjoy and create a fancy dinner.
Lamb, similar to beef, has a lot of great qualities such as Vitamin B-12, omega 3, magnesium, and potassium. Just a three-ounce lamb cut, will provide you with 25 grams of protein. Even though all these amazing qualities, as any red meat, lamb is a source of saturated fat and should be eaten moderately.
Rogan Josh is a great recipe featuring lamb, and one of the best pairing you can enjoy this with is a good medium-bodied merlot to match the spice and the acidity of the dish.
Can you recommend any specific wine pairings with lamb?
If you’re feeling still stumped, or you simply want a wine pairing to start trying, take a look at our list below. All of these wine with lamb pairings are meant to enhance and complement flavors for the best dining experience possible:
- For the young lamb, try Joyce 2017 Submarine Canyon Pinot Noir. This wine comes from Monterey, California and is an accessible, affordable wine under thirty dollars a bottle. Candied bing cherries are paired with brighter raspberry notes, but also pine and more earthy tones for a pleasant red wine that is both well rounded enough but not too overpowering for young lamb. It also has brighter acidity which is more suited for a young lamb’s fresh and more gentle flavors.
- For grilled lamb chops, consider a Syrah-like Hardys William Hardy Barossa 2012. Hardys offers a complex Australian Syrah that features rich dark fruits like blackberries and plums, but also spices that add a dimension that holds up for smokier, more flavorful cuts of lamb.
- For the roasted lamb, a wine like the Italian 2007 Feudi di San Gregorio Taurasi may be a great option. This highly praised wine costs around forty dollars per bottle and come from a renowned estate. It’s a very structured wine with higher levels of tannins and features rich classic flavors emblematic of Aglianico wine.
- For the curried lamb, try a sweeter Riesling like Eroica Riesling, 2016 for spicier curries or a dry German Riesling like Kruger-Rumpf, 2015. The sweet lime, mandarin and orange notes of the Eroica marry well with curry based spices and the natural sweetness of the lamb, while tomato based lamb curries are best balanced with a drier and pronounced Riesling.