John JuergensWine and Wild Things

This is the time of year when some people feel compelled to go out and kill, or "harvest" as some say, just about any kind of wild thing that flies, walks, or hops. Besides the basic thrill of the hunt, I know people who genuinely enjoy the stronger, gamier flavor of Bambi, Thumper, Daffy, and their other furry or feathered friends. So I did some experimentation to see what kind of wines go best with wild meats.

Now, I'm no expert on preparing wild game, but I understand that much of the palatability of the catch depends a lot on how the animal is treated immediately after its spirit has passed on to that big petting zoo in the sky. I will assume that the meat you are working with has been processed to optimize its quality.

When it comes to wine and food pairings, I have always used the rule of thumb that the stronger or more aggressive the food flavors, the more robust the wine needs to be, and vice versa. In general, this is a good way to approach the issue. However, in this experiment, I found some exceptions to the rule.

The most startling revelation was the wine that went best with venison. I have had venison that I could not distinguish from ground chuck and some that was so tough and strong that I became a vegetarian for a week. But for this research I had medallions of tenderloin that were prepared very simply in a chicken fried steak manner.

The wines selected to go with the venison included several big heavy wines, which I was certain would be needed to hold up to the flavor of the meat: Syrah, red Zinfandel, and a French Rhone. We also had a California Pinot Noir to sip on while the meal was being prepared. What we quickly discovered was that the big wines pretty much overpowered the meat, but the lighter Pinot Noir blended perfectly with it. The Zinfandel did okay as well, but it, too, was a massive wine that partially obscured the flavors of the meat.

My recommendation for venison, then, would be lighter wines such as Pinot Noir, Chianti, and Beaujolais Village.

Now on to the bunny. There are many ways to cook rabbit, but it basically comes down to whether you fry it or bake/roast it. Either way you go, I found that the flavors in a French Gigondas or an Italian Sangiovese make for a real taste treat, particularly if the hopper is marinated and baked or roasted in a wine sauce. I haven't tried it lately, but I suspect this wine would also go well with squirrel.

Duck and geese are a holiday tradition in some households, but the kinds you get in the grocery are going to be a bit different than those blasted from the sky. The store bought birds, along with those you snatch from your neighbor's pond, tend to have more fat that the wild variety because they don't normally spend most of their energy just trying to stay alive day to day. In addition, the wild ducks tend to have darker meat.

A red Zinfandel should go well with either type of bird, and for the store bought bird, a big rich Chardonnay should work well. A French Rhone or Gigondas will also mesh well with the darker meat flavors of the wild duck. I don't know that I've ever had wild turkey other than the sipping kind. However, I would think that these wines would work well also with the gobbler.

I tend to lump quail, dove, and Cornish hens in the same category since they have some nice delicate flavors you don't want to overwhelm. Chardonnay and French Rhone wines work well, as will a flavorful dry rosť, a Pinot Noir, and maybe a lighter red Zinfandel.

As with most any dish, so much depends on how the animal is cooked, the seasonings, and the sauces used. Therefore, some of this will have to be trial and error. For example, I got up the nerve to try fried Mountain Oysters for the first time on a recent trip to Denver. The Zinfandel we had going worked about as well as it could, given the challenge, but beer probably would have done a better job of just washing those rascals down. We're not exactly talking delicate and complex flavors here.

What I have tried to recommend are wines that I think match well with the basic flavors of the meat. There are lots of other possibilities out there. South American, Australia, South Africa, and Spain all have good candidates as well. If you are not sure which wine to select, your best bet would be to get two different kinds of wine and see which works best. You can always drink the other bottle with a different course or after the meal while you reminisce about what a fine animal your catch had been.

I suppose the ultimate dining experience for a true hunter would be swooning over the quality of a perfectly prepared deer steak while the mounted head of the donor observes from its place of honor on the wall.

My wine picks of the week are two reds: Karly Pokerville Zinfandel and Centine Vintage Red Table wine. The Karly Zinfandel is just a tad lighter than some other California Zins, but it still packs a lot of fruit flavor without blowing you away with high alcohol. It sells for about $11 around town and makes a terrific holiday party wine. The Centine is from Italy and is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a classic dry Italian style that is similar to good Chiantis, but without the high price tag. It also sells for about $11, and, although some people might like it as a cocktail wine, it really goes well with cheeses and sausage, and Italian dishes.

February, 2001

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