Friday, 17 August 2012

Grouse-ing about wine

Last Sunday was the Glorious Twelfth, when the grouse shooting season opens.

I don’t know about you, but the closest I’ve come to a live grouse is when picking up a bottle of a certain brand of Scotch whisky.

The red grouse, the bird in question, is native to the British Isles and can legally be shot from now until 10th December.  As young heather forms an essential part of the grouse’s diet, the hunting takes place predominantly on the heather-rich moors found in the north of England and in Scotland.  Unlike pheasant, which are commercially reared in huge numbers, grouse are truly wild birds, whose population will vary from year to year, hence they are harder to come by.  Additionally they are apparently fast and unpredictable flyers, making them the ultimate challenge for a game bird shooter.

A day’s grouse shooting is not a pleasure that everyman (or woman) can indulge, with the cost involved making it primarily a rich man’s game.  If you wanted to go shooting a few brace this week, you could be looking at in excess of £20,000 per person for a day. 

Having your own grouse moor is, of course, one way to ensure access to a few days’ shooting.  A brief perusal of Country Life a few years ago enlightened me on the importance of such things in upper class mating rituals:  apparently a key question when assessing a potential bride was, “How many acres of grouse moor does she come with?” 

And what wine to serve with your bird?

If you are heading north to bag a few dozen brace of grouse yourself, then clearly money is no object and you will doubtless be plucking a fine mature Burgundy or 1982 claret laid down by your father in your capacious wine cellar.  Or you’d get the butler to get it for you, obviously.

If, on the other hand, you have more modest means, there are plenty of restaurants who will be serving up special grouse and other game menus from now on.  Grouse is the first game to come into season, but will be joined by partridge in September and woodcock and pheasant from October.  A game dealer advised me that the best way to enjoy grouse is when someone else has cooked it for you - sound advice that will resonate with many a cook.

Buying from a game dealer will cost you around £10-12 per bird for grouse around now, with prices dropping as the season progresses.  Remember they are small creatures and you need to allow one per person.

And to drink:

The traditional match for anything labelled game is red Burgundy.  Pinot Noir, the red grape of Burgundy, develops what are politely called gamey (sometimes even farmyardy) aromas as it ages.  It is also relatively low in tannin and light in colour, making it a good match for game, which falls somewhere between the traditional white and red meat divisions.

All game is not identical of course and even the same species will taste different as the season progresses.  A young grouse shot in August with little or no hanging time is going to be a very different beast to one you eat later in the Autumn.  The older bird will have more flavour, but also be more chewy.  Similarly, young pheasants are tender enough to make suitable roasting birds early on, but by the time you’ve got to Christmas, a slow-cooked stew is the best option.

If you have access to mature Burgundy or claret, then I would heartily recommend uncorking it with your game.  If not, then try one of these:

Beaujolais-Villages, Château de Souzy 2010/11 - £10.70 from
If the sun is still shining when you tuck in to your game, then a lightly chilled Beaujolais, made from the Gamay grape, could be just the ticket.  Get hold of the 2011 if you can:  a hint of savoury animality along with juicy, cranberry fruit and a hint of bitterness give a palate-cleansing feel to the finish.

Côtes du Rhône

Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2011 - £7.99 from Waitrose
Southern Rhône reds have the right combination of peppery, weighty dark fruit and a herbal dimension to get along nicely with game – roast pheasant would be fine with this.  This one also has a definite mineral grip to give the palate a wash and brush up between mouthfuls.


Diane de Belgrave Haut-Médoc 2008 - £15 from Oddbins
Not a 1982 classed growth, but a charming and refined claret that is just beginning to show some maturity.  Enticing aromas of blackcurrant, plum and pencil shavings (enticing to me anyway) lead onto a smooth palate of dense black fruit with a hint of twiggy bramble.  The tannins in this are a definite step up from the previous two, making it a match for later season game birds or the darker meat of wood pigeon, which is always in season, as it’s regarded as a pest. 

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