A lot of work, whether in a field, forest or farm, goes into bringing wild game to the table. Blessedly, choosing wines for these dishes doesn't have to involve such heavy lifting.
Although it's sometimes best to look at a sauce or marinade for a proper pairing (more on that later), most meats garnered by hunters or even from game farms are so strongly flavored that it's best to start with the protein.
Take venison (or elk, which is basically a large deer). This meat "has feral qualities and it tends to be an iron-y meat and has a significant bloody taste," said Lenny Russo, who probably prepares more game dishes than anyone around at St. Paul's Heartland restaurant. For Russo that calls for syrah, thanks to its meaty and minerally qualities.
Syrah also works best with bear's powerful flavors and fatty texture, Russo said, although it can help to have a more acidic sangiovese in the mix, perhaps in a "Super Tuscan" blend that includes syrah. Tuscan reds also tend to be the best match for wild boar.
At the other end of the four-legged spectrum is rabbit, which should be treated more like chicken. ("Everything tastes either like chicken or licorice, right?" Russo quipped.) "If you're stewing it hunter-style, try a pinot noir or sangiovese or cab franc from the Loire or carmenere from Chile," Russo said. But for simpler preparations, sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio should work best.
White wines also are an apt complement for pheasant; look for the floral offerings from Alsace or Germany -- pinot blanc, dry riesling, gewürztraminer -- or a gruner veltliner from Austria. If the sauce is fruit-laden and a bit sweet, an off-dry riesling is apropos, Russo said.
While the similarly delicate flavors of quail work well with high-acid whites, grouse and partridge (Hungarian or chukar) "are more assertive and have that kind of liver-y component, so you can use a bolder wine," Russo said, suggesting syrah yet again, "especially if the bird has been hung upside down. That stuff is powerful."
Providing even more of a counterintuitive approach are moose and goose. The former boasts "more delicate flavors and a more buttery mouthfeel" than most folks realize, Russo said, recommending a red from Bordeaux.
Goose can be mild but often is "really robust. It's remarkable how much it can taste like beef," Russo said. "If you had your eyes closed, you might think you were eating a four-legged beast." That means a cabernet sauvignon- or merlot-based wine from Bordeaux or California.
Duck also plays well with red wine, but something a bit lighter-bodied like pinot noir from Oregon or Burgundy. That's especially true if it's prepared with mushrooms, always a splendid pinot partner.
There's probably no such thing as a perfect pairing, especially since everyone's palate is different, but there's a wonderful way to come pretty doggone close: Marinate the meat with the same wine you'll be serving.
"That's a great way to 'cheat,'" Russo said. "People will be saying, 'Wow, this pairing is so great; how'd you do that?'"
Bill Ward • firstname.lastname@example.org