GROWING UP in rural Cleveland county, it seemed like almost everyone fell into one of two categories: You either spent the fall on a deer stand or in a duck blind, or you spent those months cooking whatever was brought in from the hunt.
I fell mostly into the latter group, spending hours in my grandmother’s kitchen watching her cook whatever animal my cousins had succeeded in bagging. At the time, I was in such awe that the woods surrounding her home could be so full of things to eat, and I would long, each year, for the crisp fall weekends that would signal something delicious.
Wine wasn’t on the table at those post-hunt lunches and dinners of my youth, but now, as an adult, wine never leaves the table. Maybe it’s the same at your place. But with proteins ranging from deer to duck to pheasant to—gasp!—squirrel, trying to find the right pairing can seem like more work than the hunt itself.
Don’t worry, though: There’s only one grape you’ll need to get you through hunting season, and chances are you already love it. As it turns out, pinot noir, the cherry-scented fever dream of wine geeks around the world, is a hunter’s—and a cook’s—best friend.
Generally considered one of the more difficult grapes to grow and produce, pinot noir originated in France but also makes world-class wines in its adopted homes of California and Oregon. Unlike cabernet sauvignon or merlot, whose distinctive bitterness and weight are key signifiers of their varietals, pinot noir can be as light as a feather, offering elegance and grace, where other wines might show power and strength. Much like the wide range of dishes that turn up on our tables this season, pinot noir can shift in style from light-bodied and racy to rich and elegant, depending upon terroir, the location of the vineyard or the winemaker’s style.
The true key to pinot noir’s success at the dinner table, though, comes from the wine’s naturally high acidity. As any good home cook can attest, acid cuts fat, and it’s this same principle that makes the wine work with food. Its fruity character neutralizes the off-putting gaminess that some people fear in wild game, while remaining light enough that it won’t mask the unique character each protein brings to the table.
So which bottle should you be looking for? Well, that’s where we come in.
Some classic pairings are classic for a reason: Pinot just goes with duck, whether it’s farmed or wild, cooked with an Asian glaze or smoked on the grill (and even those duck jalapeño poppers that always show up at potlucks). For a classic pairing, I like to look for a classic wine, like Domaine Gachot-Monot’s Côte de Nuits-Villages ($39), a French pinot that’s as silky as the ripest peach and earthy as a fistful of wet, mossy mud. Duck, when cooked well, serves as the perfect launching pad for the wine’s lofty notes of wet leaves and spiced cranberry. Keep in mind that French wines are more commonly labeled with the place they’ve been grown rather than with the varietal—if you’re looking for French pinot, look for the word “Burgundy” or “Bourgogne” on the label.
Turkey might seem like the go-to bird for the holidays, but for those in the know, this season is really all about quail and pheasant. Naturally fattier than turkey, these game birds can stand up to a high-heat pan roasting—throw in a little Chinese five spice and a basting of butter, and you’ve got one of my favorite holiday dishes. For a meat like this, I look to Oregon and its beautifully distinctive pinot noirs, which bridge the elegance of French pinots with the verve and excitement of New World wine. The Stoller Family Estate’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($26) is a perfect example. It’s light and delicate and full of brambly fruit, like walking through blackberry and raspberry bushes in full bloom. But don’t forget the five spice—that blend of pepper, cinnamon, fennel, anise and clove so common in Chinese cuisine. Those are the same notes the wine gets from spending time in oak barrels, which lend just a hint of spice and warmth to the wine’s finish.
Just as each vineyard site has its own special terroir, so too can venison be influenced by the acorns, leaves and herbs the deer ate in its lifetime. Grilled or roasted, venison is the kind of protein that begs for a cherry sauce and a fruit-forward wine. Banshee Wine’s Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($20) is the perfect match, as venison’s subtle muskiness is a perfect foil for the ripe, sour-cherry notes of the wine. Think of it as an Abbot-and-Costello pairing, each one bouncing off the other into a woodsy, fruity fusion of earthy flavor.
With only 29 public-land permits up for grabs each year, elk might be one of the hardest hunts to cross off your bucket list, but for those who’ve done it, the hearty, beeflike taste is hard to forget. Elk is undoubtedly king of the Arkansas forest, and an animal that regal deserves a wine to match. Arista Winery’s Russian River Pinot Noir ($70) is more than deserving. It’s rich and ripe, like floating down a river of luscious, tart-black-cherry juice. It’s the kind of wine that, even if you aren’t a hunter, will have you considering taking up the sport.