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Choosing Red Wine for Elk and Boar

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In the Chalice of Obelix

There’ve been many dinners at our Finger Lakes farmhouse featuring wild boar leg, boar cassoulet, and boar sausage. These were typically blurry evenings with foodie friends crowded around a rough wood table that easily seats 10, but can manage a chummy 14. Back in those days, we could acquire D’Artagnan boar through our local restaurant food wholesaler.
At some point, these convivial banquets became too rich and decadent and memorable to ignore in moments of sobriety, and big-talking conversations led us to book a boar-hunting trip at a central Florida ranch. Growing up in the Sunshine State, there were plenty of encounters with feral pigs out in the orange groves along with our gun-packing cousins, but this time around we were hell-bent on using an arrow.

For those who have bow hunted feral pigs and come out with a win, this article is dedicated to you. Because after an empty-handed, sweaty day in the field, we’ll admit procuring boar is a touch-and-go operation requiring more than a puny little broad head and a glint in your eye.

Boar are pesky, ugly beasts, not easy to sneak up on, or kill, with one arrow. Even if you come within shot, and even if that shot pierces the snarly little sprinter, he may end up on the other side of hell’s half acre before he ends up on your plate.  These dense, muscular, thick-skinned hogs are like bodybuilders on hooves  — strong as steel, muscular as gymnasts, and skitzy as relay runners. They spend their days constantly on the move, hunting freely through the scrub of Texas and Florida on ranch-farms in the American South.

Boar have proliferated throughout the world with various sub-species found widely across Asia, Central Europe, and the Mediterranean; in the latter region, they seem to easily find their way onto our favorite bar and bistro menus. Though our first stab at hunting the buggers wasn’t triumphant, when it comes to eating them, we’ve been wildly successful.

In travels as a wine buyer, we’ve spent a good amount of time in the Rhone Valley of France where an army of these grape-eating machines are a nuisance to vignerons. Having enjoyed wild boar prepared in all manner of ways, we find braising it to be the tried-and-true cooking method. Boar meat is lean, so upping the juiciness factor with slow cooking is vital for full enjoyment of its robust flavor, which is comparable to a cross between pork and something richer, like duck. Boar has more depth, earthiness, and dark meat flavor than the comparatively milk-and-water whiteness of even the best heritage farm pig.

basting elk

While feral hogs might be considered pests by many people, our other subject here is usually regarded as the most regal of deer. Elk is often described as sweeter and less gamey than whitetail and much leaner than beef, and it’s all of those. However, it also has an umami, savory flavor as if it was marinated with soy and offers a depth that is intensely satisfying. The texture of a pan-seared, thin-sliced loin steak is medium to dense, yet refined, delicate, silky, and just moist.

What should you put in your chalice?
Being the wine people we are, here’s what we recommend drinking with these beasts, should one wind up near your stove: Now, you could wash it down with a Coors Light (and we’ve done that more times than we care to remember), but if you really want to impress your date or family, go ahead and drop some knowledge about how you picked a truly memorable wine for the meal you laid in front of them.

First, a few fundamentals …

Just because something is wild doesn’t mean you have to have “big” wines with it. That’s a myth that’s absolutely bore out (get it?) in our wine pairing trials. Wild meat doesn’t have much fat. These mammals are hunter-foragers 24/7/365. Imagine how svelte you’d be if you were too. So restrained red wines, meaning lighter than you’d think, with more delicate flavors, are in order here. Remember, the thing’s already dead. You don’t need to beat it to death with a wine.

Oaky wines aren’t your friend with these meats. At least, not wines made with heavy-handed new oak. It easily becomes the dominatrix, overpowering the subtlety and purity of elk, especially. Your preparation method can be a game-changer though, so if you’ve spiced up your boar braise, there are some elements of oak that might harmonize just fine, but overall, less is more.

Big wines are usually the ones put into new oak for aging. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah have more likely seen a newer oak regimen, as have most Spanish wines, as well as many expensive Bordeaux. These can be delicious with a fatty hunk of steak, grilled lamb, or thick beef stews, but remember, rule No. 1 above; we’re working with lean, nuanced meats here. Oak provides flavors like toastiness, smoke, clove, and black pepper. We’re looking for a balanced back-and-forth conversation between food and wine, not for these elements to take over.

boar recipe

Patience rewards. Hunting wild game goes completely against the M.O. of our modern world. It’s the opposite of Facebook and instant messaging, and can involve being patiently parked in a tree stand or blind for 10 hours a day, upward of a dozen days a year, just to put dinner in the freezer. Definitely not in keeping with the efficiencies of our multitasking world. Growing grapes throughout an entire growing season and transforming them into delicious, balanced, expressive wine is another labor of love with a thousand actions and decisions going into just one shot at each vintage.

You don’t want to take these two time-intensive endeavors and spoil them with a rushed and lousy pairing. Plan your wine buying ahead of time. Chances are that any occasion to eat boar or elk is a precious one. Allow yourself time to visit a proper wine store or order from a passionate out t online. If you have a cellar full of wine, put some thought into your selection and get it on deck with the same consideration as the rest of your spread. Use our wine buying basics to guide you in understanding the genres that work to enhance hard- fought, wild-harvested game instead of selling yourself short when it comes to wine.

thin slicing elk loin

Choose artisanal wines over commercial wines. Your meat didn’t come from a factory farm and neither should your wine. Big brands from a supermarket might be essential if you’re shopping last minute and live in a rural setting, but if you have access, the best wine options are from family owned, estate-grown grapes that express a sense of place. Again, this goes back to taking the time to locate a good retailer, who curates interesting wines, knows them intimately, and likely values good cooking too. With proper lead time, the Internet has plenty of these types behind the scenes in their virtual stores, so reach for wines with real stories behind them, like the ones you’ll be telling at dinner.

So which grapes and wines work?

We had our best successes with medium to lighter- bodied reds with lifted acidity and polished textures from wines such as these:

Pinot Noir from Burgundy, France
Burgundian Pinot works beautifully for elk because the intensity level is a match, the wines are elegant,
and they have complementary, underlying earth notes. Burgundy is a complex wine region that’s difficult to dissect without a map and a wine encyclopedia, but you can find wines at the regional or village level to match game dishes without breaking the bank.

Regional wines would be labeled “Bourgogne” (rouge) and would run you around $25 to $30 and village level wines named after their town of origin start at around double that. Look for values from Givry, seduction from Volnay, and class from Nuits-St-George. Red Burgundy is one of the holy grails of the wine world. It can be ethereal or it can disappoint for the money you shelled out. Consult your merchant in this territory.

Pinot Noir from other cool-climate regions
We tasted a Pinot from the Central Coast of California, which was naturally riper and richer due to its warmer climate. Though delicious, it was more suitable to the deeper wild boar flavors than more delicate elk meat. Options from cooler places such as Oregon, New Zealand, or Patagonia can be more restrained, so the fresh, delicate red fruits and forest notes will better mirror the elk. Pinot is a fussy grape to grow and never cheap. Wines begin around $18. Oregon’s world-class versions have gotten bolder and denser with recent warmer vintages and better farming, which concentrates flavors. You can easily drop $35 to $55 on wines from the Willamette Valley, but there are sub $20 bargains to be had, too.

Barbera or Dolcetto from Piedmont, Italy
Piedmont literally means the “foot of the mountains,” so it’s another cool-climate region (think Winter Olympics 2006 in Torino). These two grapes are the less expensive reds of the region for immediate drinking while you wait for the more tannic, Nebbiolo- based Barolo and Barbaresco to age. For one-third the price, you can enjoy perfect game pairings with the bright raspberry-tart and blackberry notes in these wines. Expect to spend $15 to $22.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Rhone, France
The alcohol is admittedly higher in wines from this former papal village, which means “new castle of the pope,” but the reason they suit so perfectly is that they are dominated by the Grenache grape (which gives attractive red fruit flavors and fine tannins), they are blends of up to 13 varieties meant to harmonize smoothly, and they’re typically aged in older, neutral barrels.

These wines allow you to get your “big” x on, if you typically like fuller-bodied wines. Gigondas is a nearby appellation (or named winemaking place) that provides similar depth along with minerality, complex gaminess, and refreshment. If you’ve drawn a once-in-a-lifetime tag like Keith Wood as seen elsewhere in this issue, then these puppies are worth the splurge at $45 and up.

Zinfandel (Sonoma County, California)
Sonoma is blessed by maritime influences such as cooling fogs and sea breezes that moderate its sunny climate. A fruity Zinfandel that’s done in a fresher style can be an excellent pairing, but don’t veer toward the ultra-rich, dried fruit, raisin-ated styles from too far inland. Save those for a cool night by the camp re instead of Port. $20 to $25 should cover this category.

Extrapolating from our successes above (though we didn’t actually pair them with a meal), you could also try Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley (from appellations such as Chinon, Bourgueuil, or Saumur- Champigny) or Gamay made from Cru Beaujolais villages in France such as Morgon, Côte de Brouilly, or Fleurie (there are 10 named crus in all). These wines t the fresh, crisp, medium-bodied, lightly earthy pro le that’s dead-nuts delicious on the game front. Prices range from $20 to $25.

Rioja Reserva from Rioja, Spain
The boar was able to take slightly heftier wines than the elk, and a heartier preparation would allow this even more. High off a recent Jamaican trip, we snuck some Caribbean spices into a cast iron skillet while braising rough-cut boar pieces. A 2011 Rioja was still a bit youthful, but headed in the right direction with notes of dusty cedar beginning to fade and integrate into the licorice-tinged fruit. We’d venture into even older Rioja next time, maybe closer to eight years old, or opt for a recipe that works in concert with it a bit more — a stew with black olives and anchovies perhaps.

What about an older California Cab? We tried one! We were on the right track with the age thing here, because the softening and mellowing had begun, but again, the amount of oak was obtrusive and the wine too in-your-face. That dominatrix was cracking her whip again.

Parting Shot
Would you shoot squirrels with a 10 gauge? You probably could, but a .410 might be more appropriate. Keep that in mind when you fire up your wine choice. No matter where you live, you ought to be able to take these grape/wine thoughts to a store and choose a wine that plays well with your hard-earned game.

After you’ve harvested your wild thing, put a tame wine beside it, and regale your company with captivating conversation about the hunt, finish off the night with a sturdy snifter of Bache-Gabrielson American Oak Cognac, aged in new Tennessee oak barrels. It’s a new twist on a traditional digestif that builds a bridge for Bourbon drinkers to cross over to Cognac. Notes of maple, nutmeg, hazelnuts, and wood spice are bold and brash. This is Cognac unshaven and telling tall tales.


Elk Pairings:
Elk pairings

Boar Pairings:
Boar pairings

Rick Rainey owns a winery called Forge Cellars in New York’s Finger Lakes that specializes in making bone-dry Riesling and cool-climate Pinot Noir, while also working (for over 20 years) for a wine importer-distributor. He loves nothing more than perching in the woods all day waiting to harvest wild game and then doing it justice with fine cooking and French wines. Dewi Rainey owns Red Feet Wine Market & Spirit Provisions, a terroir-driven wine shop in Ithaca, New York. She loves traveling the globe, buying fine linens, hiking, skiing, and gardening. They live with their son Hendrix in a 200-year-old farmhouse surrounded on three sides by cornfields.

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