A Guide to Pairing Wine with Lamb

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Dish of lamb with a glass of red wine in the background

Lamb is well-known as the feature dish of an Easter or Passover meal, but it's also enjoyed year-round as a special indulgence. From the meat of a sheep that is less than one year old, lamb is leaner and milder than mutton, its older counterpart. Its versatility lends itself to a wide variety of preparations: cut from the rack, roasted and served with herbs and vegetables, simmered in a hearty stew, threaded onto kebab skewers, or ground and shaped into meatballs or burgers. Many flavors complement lamb, so you will often find it cooked using a variety of herbs, spices, and seasonings, including:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Citrus
  • Sumac
  • Mint
  • Fennel
  • Rosemary
  • Cumin
  • Thyme
  • Oregano

The wine that best accompanies a lamb dish is dictated by the dish's ingredients and method of preparation. However, where your lamb is from is another factor to take into consideration. Not everyone is aware that lamb from different regions has different flavors. This is largely because of the animals' diets. New Zealand lamb generally has a gamier taste, for instance, while American lamb is milder. In this guide, you will learn how to pair wine with young or spring lamb, roast lamb, lamb chops, and grilled or barbecued lamb.

Pairing Wine with Lamb

Unlike some meats, when pairing wine with lamb there isn’t a universal rule to follow. Generally, robust red wines go well with lamb's lightly gamey taste, but in some cases these may overpower the meat and ruin your meal. The best wine and lamb pairings depend on the lamb's cut and how you're cooking it. Decide first how you're serving your lamb, and pair your wine accordingly.

Wine Pairings for Young or Spring Lamb

Young lamb and spring lamb are often served pink and have a lighter flavor. Because of this, they require a lighter wine. Full-bodied red wines tend to mask the more delicate taste of these lean meats, so skip the merlots and cabernets for this meal.

Pinot noir and rosé are both excellent pairings for young and spring lamb. Pinot noirs from any region will pair well with this type of lamb, though those produced in Burgundy are an excellent option if you’re looking for something top-of-the-line.

If you'd rather not drink red wine, dry and vintage rosé also pair particularly well with young cuts of lamb. Opt for a bottle that has a few years on it. The fruitiness of these wines complements the richness and subtlety of young lamb.

Wine Pairings for Roast Lamb

Lamb dishes that are roasted, such as rack of lamb, leg of lamb, or lamb cutlets, pair well with a wide variety of red wines. Pinot noir is an excellent choice, especially if your lamb will be served on the medium-rare side. You can also venture into bolder wines.

Many roast lamb dishes served for holidays or large family gatherings are prepared medium-well to well-done, making them pair well with Bordeaux blends containing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

If you're preparing your roast lamb with Italian-inspired flavors such as garlic, rosemary, or oregano, consider pairing it with an Italian red such as Chianti Classico or Sangiovese Grosso.

Wine Pairings for Lamb Chops

Lamb chops are a rustic dish with an earthy flavor, frequently served alongside cooked carrots, potatoes, and other root vegetables. Often they're accompanied by mushroom gravy or a balsamic reduction. The hearty flavors in this dish cause it to pair well with wines that also work with dishes such as lamb ragout and shepherd's pie.

Pinot noir, Bordeaux blends, and the Italian reds mentioned earlier all pair well with lamb chops, but you can also venture into medium- and full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot if that suits your tastes. These pairings are less common than red blends, however, with red wine blends from the Rhône valley in France being the wines most frequently paired with lamb chops.

Wine Pairings for Grilled or Barbecued Lamb

Lamb that has been grilled or barbecued, either as kebabs or another form, has a smoky flavor that needs to be balanced out. Barbecued lamb may still be paired with pinot noir or a blended red, but Syrahs can give it an extra punch. These cool-climate wines may be your best choice, especially those that start with a fruity flavor and end on peppery notes.

Another choice to go with barbecued lamb is a dry rosé such as Chateau Musar Jeune Rose, as this wine will complement the charred flavor.

Can I Pair White Wine with Lamb?

The tried-and-true tradition is to pair red meat with red wine, as many white wines are not intense enough to complement the rich flavor of lamb. Pairing wine with meals is for your personal enjoyment, however, so if you prefer white wine to red, go ahead and have them together!

If you do choose to pair your lamb with white wine, stay away from tart wines like Riesling and pinot grigio—unless you're having a lamb curry such as rogan josh. Instead, opt for a more complex wine, like an oaked Chardonnay. Viogniers are known for pairing well with dishes that contain rosemary, so if your dish features that herb, consider trying one.

Further Wine Pairing Help

If you want to pair wine with a lamb dish not mentioned here, think about what herbs, spices, and other ingredients the dish contains. From there, choose a wine that complements those flavors. When in doubt, you can always go with a pinot noir or blended red.

If you need more information about lamb and wine pairings, we have knowledgeable wine specialists available to provide customized one-on-one wine consultations. Whether you’re ordering or serving lamb or any other dish, JJ Buckley can meet all of your wine needs.