Getting in the game

DRINK: AS I WRITE, the cold weather has arrived. The heating has been switched on and gardening seems less appealing

DRINK:AS I WRITE, the cold weather has arrived. The heating has been switched on and gardening seems less appealing. Despite this, I love autumn; as in spring, the quality of light is wonderful. Fruits are reaching ripeness and all over Europe the serious business of winemaking has begun.

It is time to bring out the casserole, buy root vegetables and look out for more muscular red wines. Come September, a wonderful assortment of game starts to arrive in our shops. Gone are the days when you needed to know a member of the landed gentry or a wealthy farmer to gain access to the wild animals that roam our countryside; nowadays many delicatessens and butchers offer a very decent range, as do some of the more enterprising supermarkets.

For wine-lovers this presents an opportunity to crack open something decent, as game makes a perfect backdrop for many of the best red wines. The biggest problem could well be the sauce or accompaniments. The habit of serving something sweet, usually fruit-based, may work well with the game, but less so with the wine.

Bigger, riper wines from warmer climates such as Australia are better able to handle these flavours. However, if you are looking for an excuse to open a bottle of something really special, there are few things better with fine wine than a plainly roasted bird, such as partridge or pheasant, served simply on its own.


If that looks a bit too Spartan, a few roasted root vegetables with a sauce based on stock and wine, rather than vinegar or fruit, will help rather than hinder a wine.

As an aside, I met a sommelier recently who swore that celeriac is one of the finest vegetables to serve with wine, smoothing tannins and livening fruit. I have yet to try it out, but would be interested to hear from anyone who has. Pinot noir, and mature Burgundy in particular, is a personal favourite with game, but any well aged mature red should be fine.

Venison is the most richly flavoured game meat, so a big-scale red is called for here. A Barossa shiraz or grenache, a full-bodied malbec from Argentina, or a big red from Spain, or a Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Hermitage from France. Alternatively, mallard, teal and pigeon have plenty of flavour, so something fairly robust will work well. I would tend to go for something European, such as a Bordeaux, Northern Rhone, Barolo or Chianti Classico.

Just about every European country that produces wine has a few options, as most treat game as an everyday food. Older birds should be casseroled, and can be equally good, usually offering a little more in terms of flavour. Cook them in red or white wine. With a casserole, if you can afford it, I would go for a red Burgundy, a Pomerol, a Grand Cru St Emilion, or a bigger wine from the Rhone Valley.

Many Irish people shy away from rabbit for sentimental reasons. Price is the only thing that puts me off. What was a cheap staple when I was young seems to have become a luxury food. Rabbit is milder in flavour, and calls for a lighter, younger red wine. There are plenty of options, but I would tend to head straight for pinot noir again, this time a fresher, more youthful version. If you are cooking it with white wine, you should consider a full-bodied unoaked white, such as viognier or chardonnay.

Lastly, if you are a beer drinker, have full-bodied red ales. The more flavoursome Belgian beers are good with food generally, and can be excellent with game. When the winter really sets in, there is nothing better than a warming bowl of game pie with a glass of Chimay Red label.


Willunga 100 Grenache 2010, McLaren Vale, 14.5%, €14.99This delicious, big, punchy, fruit-laden grenache would make an excellent match for venison, either roasted or in a pie. Sweet raspberries on the nose, and ripe full-bodied sweet strawberries and spice on the palate. Stockists: O'Briens; Wicklow Wine Co; World Wide Wines, Waterford; Blackrock Cellar; Donnybrook Fair; JM Vintners, Rush; Next Door, Enfield; Red Island Wine, Skerries; Williams Allen, Dundrum; Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson St; The Vineyard, Galway; Florries Fine Wine, Tramore; Gibneys, Malahide; The Parting Glass, Enniskerry

Crozes-Hermitage Les Hauts du Fief 2010, Cave de Tain 13% €16.99A beautifully elegant wine with dark savoury fruits that combine nicely with the subtle spice. It finishes smoothly and lingers very nicely. Try with venison, pigeon or possibly rabbit. Stockist: O'Briens

Escarpment Pinot Noir, Martinborough 2010 14% €24The North Island region of Martinborough vies with Central Otago to produce New Zealand's finest pinot noir. Larry McKenna, an Aussie winemaker who settled in New Zealand many years ago, is one of the leading exponents with a range of smooth, richly fruited wines. The Escarpment has plenty of silky sweet, lush black cherry fruits intensified by just enough appetizing acidity. Try it with roast or casseroled partridge or venison. Stockists: Daly's Drinks, Boyle; Morton's, Galway; The Parting Glass, Enniskerry; Gibney's of Malahide.

Barolo Le Albe 2007 GD Vajra 14.5% €41.99This is lovely wine, expensive as all nebbiolo is, but worth it. Violet aromas, elegant sour cherry fruits with a savoury twist, and ripe tannins on the finish. A wine to be sipped slowly with food; it probably won't make sense otherwise. This would go very nicely with roast pheasant or partridge. Stockists:; The Corkscrew, Chatham St; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, Co Dublin; Williams Allen Wines, Dundrum; Eldon's, Clonmel; 64 Wine, Glasthule.

John Wilson

John Wilson

John Wilson, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a wine critic