Wine: Easter Celebrations
Wines to drink with lamb
L amb is one of my favourite foods to have with wine; that mild but distinctive flavour and that succulent, juicy texture seem to provide the perfect backdrop to just about any red wine. Two grapes seem to work particularly well; Cabernet Sauvignon with its tannic structure and dry finish, or Tempranillo, which is softer and friendlier. If neither of those appeal, Syrah from the northern Rhône or a Sangiovese are worth considering.
If you are having a very delicate young spring lamb, Pinot Noir can be very good. However, as always, it all depends on how you serve your lamb and who is coming to lunch.
Bear in mind that lamb, along with beef, is one of the great accompaniments to a really fine wine. So this Easter why not open up one of your very best mature bottles?
For a leg or rack of lamb, Bordeaux would be the traditional choice. The wines of Pauillac have traditionally been singled out as the perfect accompaniment to partner the pré-salé lamb from the nearby salt marshes.
These days I am not sure how much lamb is produced in the Médoc, but I do like the idea of roast lamb with a bottle of Château Latour or Château Lynch-Bages. Fantasies aside, any good Bordeaux will go down well, but a New World Cabernet Sauvignon, a Northern Rhône or Chianti Classico would all do nicely too.
Further south of Bordeaux, the Spanish are huge fans of lamb. In Rioja and Ribera del Duero it often forms the centrepiece of a celebration meal. One favourite is a whole milk-fed lamb roasted in a clay oven, known as an asador.
In Rioja you are more likely to be served chuletas , very thin lamb chops rubbed with garlic and salt and then grilled on vine cuttings. Both will usually be served without any accompaniment other than crusty bread and a plain salad of lettuce and tomatoes. These dishes may seem simple, but properly done they are absolutely delicious.
The other local favourite in Rioja is their version of Irish stew, a hearty lamb stew cooked with beans and tomatoes rather than our potatoes. It is rib-sticking stuff but very good on a cold winter’s day.
With the stew I would go for a young fruity Rioja or a bigger Ribera del Duero. However you could add Rioja Reserva and Gran Reserva to the list of wines to serve with roast lamb.
Domini Kemp’s lamb hotpot recipe on page 23 is a powerfully flavoured full-on dish with all of those spices and harissa. A Bordeaux or Rioja would be swamped, so I would head straight to the New World.
I tried three Cabernets, one each from Australia, Chile and Argentina, alongside a version of the hotpot. All three worked very well, although the Chilean proved the best match because it had the acidity to match the tomatoes as well as enough power and fruit to stand up to the spice and chilies. With spicy dishes it is best to avoid wines with too much tannin, so I would steer clear of Bordeaux and Chianti Classico.
The lamb kebabs (recipe on page 22) are less intense and would be best with something a little less full-bodied. I haven’t tried the recipe yet, but intend doing so over the Easter weekend.
You could stay with New World Cabernet, but here I would be tempted to try out the Rhône Syrah. Although medium-bodied and elegant, it has enough fruit and spice to match the punchy aioli.
One last piece of advice; if you are opening up one of your best bottles keep well clear of the mint sauce. Vinegar, basically wine that has gone off, and sugar are two of the greatest enemies of red wine.
Of the four wines of the week, it is worth giving special mention to López Heredia. This bodega is one of the most traditional Rioja houses.
The wines are aged in large oak barrels for a lengthy period before release (the bodega has its own cooperage). The cellars are remarkable, with several levels of elderly giant oak barrels as you descend into the depths of the earth.
The style of the wine is unique and not to everyone’s taste, with secondary aromas and complex earthy flavours in the place of what is usually described as fruit. Frequently there is also a strong fresh mineral bite and a severe austerity.
If you fancy trying something truly different the white Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva 1994 (the current release) is one of the best wines I have tasted so far this year.