A reader’s email about pairing wine with her husband’s hunting triumphs got me thinking about the long tradition of pairing red wine with game. There are, of course, almost countless ways to match the two, but I think there’s one single grape that has the multifaceted personality to last through a year’s worth of hunting seasons: Pinot noir, the cherry-scented fever dream of wine geeks around the world, is a hunter’s — and a cook’s — best friend.
The key to pinot’s success at the dinner table comes from its naturally high acidity. As any good home cook can attest, acid cuts fat, and it’s this same principle that makes the wine work with food. Its fruity character neutralizes the off-putting gaminess that some people fear in wild game, while remaining light enough that it won’t mask the unique character each protein brings to the table.
Duck: Some classic pairings are classic for a reason: pinot just goes with duck, whether it’s farmed or wild, cooked with an Asian glaze or smoked on the grill (and even those duck jalapeno poppers that always show up at potlucks). For a classic pairing, look for a classic wine, like a French Pinot that’s as silky as the ripest peach and earthy as a fistful of wet, mossy mud. Keep in mind that French wines are more commonly labeled with the place they’ve been grown rather than the grape — if you’re looking for French pinot, look for the word “Burgundy” or “Bourgogne” on the label.
Game Birds: Turkey might seem like the go-to bird for the holidays, but for those in the know, quail and pheasant are really where it’s at. Naturally fattier than turkey, these game birds can stand up to a high-heat pan roasting — throw in a little Chinese five spice and a basting of butter, and you’ve got one of my favorite holiday dishes. For a meat like this, I look to Oregon and its beautifully distinctive pinot noirs, which bridge the elegance of French pinots with the verve and excitement of New World wine. They’re typically light and delicate and full of brambly fruit, like walking through blackberry and raspberry bushes in full bloom.
Venison: Just as each vineyard site has its own special terroir, so too can venison be influenced by the acorns, leaves and herbs the deer ate in its lifetime. Grilled or roasted, it’s the kind of protein that begs for a cherry sauce and a fruit-forward wine. Wines from Sonoma County are the perfect match, as venison’s subtle muskiness is a perfect foil for the ripe, sour cherry notes of these warm weather wines. Think of it as an Abbott-and-Costello pairing, each one bouncing off the other into a woodsy, fruity fusion of earthy flavor.
Elk: With only a handful of public permits up for grabs each year, elk might be one of the hardest hunts to cross off your bucket list, but for those who’ve done it, the hearty, beef-like taste is hard to forget. Elk is undoubtedly king of the Arkansas forest, and an animal that regal deserves a wine to match. Look for pinots from California’s Russian River Valley, a pinot hotspot. They’re typically rich and ripe, like floating down a river of luscious, tart black cherry juice, the kinds of wine that, even if you aren’t a hunter, will have you considering taking up the sport.
As always, you can see what I’m drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to [email protected]