The Seven Best Wine Pairings for Game Birds

Pheasants and wine

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Pheasants and wine

Pheasants and wine

© shutterstock

1. Pheasant

Originally from Asia, the pheasant’s striking plumage and popularity as a game bird have led to wide dispersal across Europe and North America, with smaller populations in Australia and New Zealand. While pheasant breasts can easily stand in for chicken across a host of dishes, if you want to make use of the whole bird then a hotpot is the easiest way to prevent this lean meat from drying out.

White wine, or even cider, often makes a friendlier base than red and will dictate the pairing in your glass accordingly. This is in essence a hearty dish though, with herbs bringing an important dimension, so your white wine will need plenty of body and texture. Grenache Blanc – or Garnatxa Blanca if it’s one of the many excellent Catalan examples – combines generous body from all that Mediterranean sunshine with beguiling aromas and a savoury, herbal edge.

It’s a mainstay of white southern Rhône blends, a good value source of charismatic drinking. Alternatively, take inspiration from the classic Alsatian dish coq au Riesling, pouring generous portions of this region’s rich yet steely expression into both cooking pot and glass.

2. Partridge

Whether red-legged “Frenchman” or grey, the dainty partridge is not only a sporting challenge but a succulent, mild flavoured introduction to game. Widespread across Europe and Asia, partridge have also been successfully introduced to North America and several pockets of the southern hemisphere.

However it is in Spain that “perdiz” is particularly highly prized, a popularity that’s reflected in numerous recipes. Channel that Iberian theme by serving your partridge in a warming tomato and chorizo stew, accompanied by a mellow glass of reserva or even gran reserva Rioja.

3. Woodcock

Blink and you’ll miss it. The glimpse of a perfectly camouflaged woodcock exploding from fallen leaves to jink away at speed through woodland should make anyone’s day. If you’re lucky enough to find one on your plate – they’re too small to share – then treat it with respect.

Simply roasted is the best way to do this bird justice; purists like to spread the liver on toast as an accompaniment. Despite its diminutive size, there’s plenty of rich, gamey flavour packed into a woodcock so northern Rhône Syrah, especially an elegant, aromatic Côte Rôtie would be an excellent, suitably smart match for such a rare treat.

4. Grouse

Truly wild, moorland grouse is another rare treat, traditionally matched with the best mature red Burgundy you can lay your hands on. If your cellar planning or finances can’t rise to the occasion then there’s no need to panic, but your best alternatives may depend on the bird in question.

Young, early season grouse, cooked rare, brings a sweet, heathery flavour to the table that would work well with young, sappy Bourgogne Rouge or a more savoury style of Pinot Noir from other parts of the world, such as Australia’s Yarra Valley or Geelong.

The cherry and pepper spice of Austrian Blaufränkisch is another good option. If your grouse is late season and well hung for good measure then expect an altogether more gamey, strong flavoured experience. This calls for a rich wine with a touch of wildness: the feral edge of a good Languedoc or Douro red, or the deep, meaty character of Mourvèdre from Bandol.

5. Duck

Mallard, teal, pochard, goldeneye, pintail, eider, widgeon: the duck family is a broad, colourful and delicious one. This rich, fatty meat calls for a juicy red with good acidity. Pinot Noir stand out as the classic match, whether your menu plan is inspired by Western cuisine or the Oriental flavours that work so well with duck.

For a simple roast, look to a more delicate red Burgundy, while the addition of spice, and hoisin sauce calls for the richer, riper style that Central Otago or California do so well. Beyond Pinot Noir, the tannic, often rustic wines of Marcillac in south-west France are a perfect foil for this region’s duck-heavy cuisine such as cassoulet or confit de canard.

Cherries work beautifully cooked with duck, in which case seek out the complimentary sour cherry tang of an Italian red: Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Valpolicella ripasso or Etna’s Nerello Mascalese.

6. Goose

A popular Christmas choice in several parts of the world, goose is also celebrated by much of central Europe around St Martin’s feast day on 11th November as Martinigansl. It’s therefore fitting that both Austria and Hungary have plenty of wines well suited to this fatty, gamey bird. Whether your choice is red or white, a good level of acidity is key to cutting through that fat.

Blaufränkisch, or Kékfrankos in Hungarian, would be a fine match, especially if the goose is accompanied by braised, spiced red cabbage. There’s a strong case for white wine here, though it needs sufficient drive and weight to take on the bold flavour both of the bird and its traditional, fruity accompaniments.

A weightier Austrian or Alsatian Riesling can be sublime with goose, as is Furmint, whose richer and even sweet expressions are a particularly winning match with goose liver.

7. Snipe

More of a mouthful than a meal, these petite, marsh-dwelling waders zig-zag their way out of trouble too skilfully to be a regular feature on any menu so pounce when you spot them. Similar in appearance to a woodcock but smaller, you’ll need two, even three, for a main meal.

Roast them (very briefly!) whole for the least fiddly way to prepare such dainty morsels. Purists will eat the entrails, which bring an extra gaminess to the dish that mature red Burgundy matches beautifully. So too would the ethereally autumnal flavours of a mature Nebbiolo from Piedmont: wild wine for wild food.

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Wild food, whether acquired by your own skill or someone else’s, brings a flavourful, healthy and deeply seasonal dimension to the dining table. Read on for some classic ways to serve some favourite game birds and, of course, the best wine pairings to take that dish to the next level of enjoyment.

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