Tempranillo – perfect pairing with lamb and pork

An excerpt from Daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

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daring pairings by Evan Goldstein

daring pairings by Evan Goldstein


Tempranillo’s versatility at the table derives from its wide range of styles, from easy-drinking rioja to bruising toro; from the age classifications, which result in varying ranges of tannin; from the variety of flavor profiles (over time, its fruit becomes a more secondary than primary flavor); and from the grapes with which it has been blended.

Most tempranillo-based wines go with red meat, especially the lamb and pork that are so popular in Spain. I joked on a trip to Rioja that it seemed like we were eating lamb for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tempranillo-based wines have a magical synergistic relationship with lamb, from a basic roast to a rare cut of leg to a slow-simmered stew. It goes well with an equally broad range of pork dishes, from chorizo and other dried, cured, and uncured sausages to jamón (dry ham, like prosciutto) and cochinillo, roast suckling pig. Pork pairs well with rioja, navarra, and other elegant styles of tempranillo, and lamb is marvelous with the bigger offerings from Toro and the Ribera del Duero. The baby roast lamb cooked in a wood-burning oven at the Casa Florencio in Aranda de Duero, the capital village of Ribera del Duero, with a good bottle of local wine is a memorable meal. Though beef isn’t consumed widely throughout Spain, it goes quite well with tempranillo based wines, as any Argentinean pairing demonstrates. Try it with a rib-eye, marinated with fresh herbs and garlic, on your grill at home.

Speaking of herbs, the inherent balsamico character of tempranillo makes a great bridge between the wine and herbal preparations. Using herbal marinades or sauces, tossing a few branches of rosemary onto your coals when grilling, and serving herb-roasted potatoes all make for a pleasurable experience. Mint, fennel, laurel, dill, and lemon verbena will reveal the corresponding notes in the wine. Tempranillo also has an exotic side that the right recipe can bring out. Savory curries, a veal chop served with a fresh tomato and mint salsa, or slow-cooked ribs with a glaze of balsamic vinegar and fennel all play to this side of the grape.

The more elegant versions of tempranillo are great with fowl, from a simple herb-roasted chicken to chorizo-stuffed quail or Cornish game hens served with a dried-fruit compote. The bigger bruisers can hold their own against rich pastas, venison, duck, and dishes featuring beans and lentils. 

Rioja rosado (rosé) is one of my house staples. Delightful on its own, it’s also enjoyable with tapas, dim sum, fish, lighter meat dishes, and shellfish. Plus it’s flexible with cheese, and I always finish with cheese!


Pairing Pointers

Tempranillo goes well with:

  • With lamb. Try an easy-drinking joven or crianza wine with a lamb burger at lunch, or a basic rack of lamb with a more ample wine for dinner. Accompany the rack with herb-roasted potatoes and peas with onions and mint, and it’s a great match. And while tempranillo works magic for lamb, it goes well with beef, too.
  • With herbal treatments and preparations. The balsamico character of tempranillo makes for an easy match with food. Sauces, marinades and dishes incorporating oregano, rosemary, thyme, and cilantro are naturals with this grape, from basil pesto to a classic salsa verde.
  • Throughout the meal. Start with a refreshing young tempranillo-based rosado before dinner, then move on to a soft, easy wine with your first course, followed by a more ample bottle for your main dish. Not many grapes have this much range. You can weave in different styles and age classifications as you like.
  • With vegetarian dishes. This is particularly true of more traditional styles and wines that are light on the new oak. Again, the herbal character lends itself to many dishes incorporating vegetables. I enjoy tempranillo with ratatouille, grilled vegetable brochettes, a vegetarian lasagna, or risotto with roasted vegetables.
  • When you play the 'wine age game.' My friend Josh Wesson first explained this to me almost twenty years ago, and it hasn’t let me down: the rarer the meat, the older the wine you can serve with it. Serve the aged gran reserva wines with rarer cuts of meat, simply prepared to allow the wine’s nuances to come through while allowing the meat’s juices to supplement what time has taken away from the wine. Pair stews and longer-cooked cuts with the succulent young joven and crianza wines.

Tempranillo isn’t good:

  • When you pick the wrong one. Although versatile, these wines are not completely interchangeable. Don’t choose a big wine from Toro to go with your simply sautéed chicken breast, or opt for an easy-drinking, unoaked style for a roast leg of lamb. If you are unsure, pick a style somewhere in the middle.
  • With very bitter foods. Endive, unpeeled eggplant, escarole, chard, and other bitter vegetables bring out a mean streak in most tempranillo wines and suffocate the fruit. If you must serve these vegetables, temper the bitterness with other ingredients or cooking techniques such as slow-roasting or long braising that mellow the flavors.
  • With strongly flavored fish and shellfish. Even the easy-to-drink unoaked styles are hurt by these pairings, and the more ample wines really don’t work at all. Opt for a rosado, or serve a mild fish with one of the gentle, less tannic bottlings.
  • With salads and sharp dishes. Because it’s not high in acidity or sharpness, tempranillo has a hard time pairing with dressed salads. Avoid vinaigrettes altogether, and stay away from pickled items, asparagus, citrus, and sharp dairy dressings (yogurt or sour cream).
  • With blue cheeses. I thought for sure when I was going through the range of wines that I’d find some happiness here. But sadly, I didn’t find a single blue cheese that didn’t hurt the wine. If you really want to have a blue, opt for a mild and less salty cheese, such as a Castello, Montbriac, or Cambozola, and choose a light red or rosado wine. Those can be great pairings.


The Cheese Plate

FRESH: Burrata, chèvre (many countries) – rosé
SEMI-SOFT: Saint-Nectaire (France), tetilla (Spain) – red, rosé
SOFT-RIPENED: Pierre Robert (France), robiola (Italy) – red, rosé
SEMI-HARD: Manchego (Spain), São Jorge (Portugal) – red
HARD: Dry or aged Jack (U.S.A.), aged Mahón (Spain) – red
BLUE: Cambozola (Germany), Castello (U.K.), Montbriac (France) – rosé


Reproduced with permission of University of California Press © Evan Goldstein 2010 

Read our full review of Daring Pairings here »

Daring Pairings by Evan Goldstein is published by University of California Press (Berkeley and LA; 2010; hb 353 pp) and retails for RRP US$34.95  or RRP A$55.95 in Australia.

It is available from online from Australian distributor Inbooks: www.inbooks.com.au for A$45. Inbooks offer free postage within Australia to VisitVineyards.com subscribers and Members here »

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