Pairing Wine with the Birds

Pop Culture
Cotes du Rhône, Coudoulet de Beaucastel should pair well with this sliced duck filet in red wine, grape, and thyme served with asparagus and potatoes. (Duck filet image via Wikimedia Commons/Alpha)

When it comes to wine, there are two general rules for pairing vino with the main dish. Red wines go with red meat, and white wines with fish.

Occasionally, you’ll see a rich Chardonnay nicely match the succulent juices of tender beef or bison filet, and I often pair light to medium red wines — Pinot Noir, especially — with salmon. And, who can say no to a good California Cabernet Sauvignon with a crispy fried fish?

While the red-and-white edict leads the most basic of wine pairing thoughts, those rules don’t apply to the birds. More so than any protein, pairing wine with game birds depend on many factors.

Is the bird fried, baked, smoked or sautéed in butter? Is the skin crispy? Is there a sauce or a unique spice? Is the bird light like chicken or fatty like duck? Some birds, like squab, have a harsh, fatty flavor that need a rich red wine to cut through the fat, while many game fowl, like pheasant, are often cooked with bacon to give more flavor and you find yourself pairing the wine based on the flavor enhancer and not the bird.

So, every dish depends on many scenarios, and you’ll see masters of wine and master sommeliers debating with political-like gusto over what to pair. Once in your life, you owe it to yourself to listen to highly educated wine people argue over how to pair wine with a main course. It’s priceless.

For now, I’ll make some assumptions on your birds and pair accordingly. Pay special attention if you’re planning a weekend getaway to the racetrack and lining up dining reservations in advance.


Duck

Coudoulet de Beaucastel

For duck, I hope you’re getting the skin crispy. Few things in life match the tasting joy of a crispy duck with a Cotes du Rhône, a region of France making wine meant for duck pairings. Even if you’re not cooking your duck to a crispy skin and you’re adding a spice cabinet of herbs, Rhone’s light to earthy style with notes ranging in delicate and fruity to complex and smooth cut through the duck fat.

My picks this year for a duck would be Cotes du Rhône, Coudoulet de Beaucastel ($30), a red fruit-forward wine with spice and oak. It’s nicely balanced and the meaty tannins make a delicious duck paring.

If you want to walk outside the box a little, a big jammy Malbec from Argentina would be a fun change of pace.  But, my favorite Malbec region is Cahors, France. And, I’d be doing you a disservice if I recommended any wine but the Clos Triguedina, The New Black Wine, ($60). A limited production, this gorgeous wine is big and dry with hints of licorice. Its acidity is perfect for a super fatty duck.


Pheasant

Cinder Syrah

The pinkish-white meat in pheasant might lead one to believe this is a white wine pairing. But, I’ve thought the bird’s natural flavors were well suited for Syrah or Shiraz as they say in Australia. And my two picks for this year’s pheasant are a bit risky.

I love Idaho wine right now. Yes, Idaho. This state could be the next California, Oregon, or Washington when it comes to winemaking. And nobody is doing it better than Cinder Winery. For the gamier pheasant, I just love the Cinder Syrah ($27) and its jammy fruits with spice and ripeness to balance the nutty, gamey flavor of pheasant.

If you have a less-gamey pheasant, where the flavors lean more sweet than bitter, the Henschke Shiraz Mt. Edelstone, 2008 ($110) takes on you an unmatched tasting highway with a complex black fruit-and-red fruit balance. The pairing is simply divine.


Quail

Domaine Pascal Bouchard Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru

When eating quail in a restaurant, I always lose half to my wife. Her fork knows no etiquette when it comes to the tender, juicy flavor profile of her favorite bird. But, she never touches the wine I pair, because she’s not a Chardonnay fan. The nutty, buttery, ripe fruit in Chardonnays at all price points offer experiences with quail I’ve not found with other wines.

Domaine Pascal Bouchard Chablis Les Clos Grand Cru, 2009, ($100) and quail pairing is so delightfully tasty and different that I can still taste the expressive Chardonnay’s citrus peel and bitterness balance the quail’s smokiness.

Contrary to the bitterness of the Burgundy Chardonnay, Williams-Selyem Chardonnay Unoaked Russian River Valley, 2008 ($75), this California wine delivers tartness and acidity but gives gentle lemongrass, citrus and crispness that makes it a refreshing pairing with quail.


Turkey

Praia Vinho Verde

Finally … turkey. What wine-bird pairing story would be complete without turkey?

There’s only one country I seek for turkey pairings — Portugal. That’s right, the tiny country next to Spain makes ideal white wine for an oven-baked gobbler. Specifically, the inexpensive Vinho Verde, a style of light, young, and fresh white wines that come from young grapes. They’re acidic, slightly sweet, and super cheap. Trader Joe’s Vinho Verde or Praia Vinho Verde cost around $8.

Staying in Portugal, Cortes de Cima Chamine Branco is a blend of Antao Vaz, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. It’s aromatic and young, herbaceous and fruity. I enjoyed this wine with our 2010 Thanksgiving turkey.

Of course, my mother-in-law only drinks Amarone for the holidays. And the vintage she picked clubbed the mouth and didn’t let you taste the turkey. I tried to move her onto the Chamine Branco, but she wasn’t having anything of it.

I learned two valuable lessons that day. Never argue with my mother-in-law.  And, it doesn’t matter what the pairing rules say: drink what you like.

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