Oh Dear, These Venison Meatballs Are So Satisfying, Especially Paired with the Perfect Wine

Hunter and cookbook author Hank Shaw wants you to get your game (and your grapes) on.

Venison Meatballs with Cumberland Sauce
Photo: Photo by Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

Venison, if you've never had it, is essentially lean, grass-fed beef with a finer texture. It's very low in fat, and because it is denser than beef, you can fill up on less. I prefer venison because, as a distance runner, I find that eating beef feels fatty and coarse to me; I can feel it slowing me down. Venison is like high-octane fuel for the body.

But for most people, when autumn turns to winter and hunting seasons fade, all the prime venison roasts and back-straps are gone, and what's left are packages upon packages of ground venison. Even if you're not a hunter, a friend might have offered to give you a pound or five. Don't fear the grind—though it helps to know exactly what you're dealing with.

Ground venison from the processor will likely be a fairly coarse grind and will either be cut with beef or pork fat, or with nothing at all. This matters. Pure ground venison, with no added fat, can be tricky to work with and is best suited for spaghetti sauce or chili.

I prefer to grind my own venison, using bacon ends from the supermarket or pork fat from a hog-farmer friend. I make a grind that's about 15% fat by weight, which in my opinion makes the best burgers and meatballs. I also mostly prefer a finer grind because it makes for a better meatball. You might have a friend who hunts, but if not, you can find frozen venison in many Whole Foods markets and also independent butcher shops. Texas-based Broken Arrow Ranch and New Jersey–based D'Artagnan Foods sell venison online.

MAKE: Red Wine Venison Stew

What follows is a British take on cocktail meatballs that are perfect for winter. They're filled with warming spices and herbs and leavened with ground oats, which is a Scottish thing that also makes these gluten-free. The sauce is my spin on the classic Cumberland sauce, which dates back to the 1800s and makes for a classic sweet, salty, savory, spicy glaze for these meatballs.

Wine with Game

Not all game is necessarily gamy, but there's no question that mammals and birds that live in the wild taste different from their farm-raised brethren. Their flavors tend to be darker and more intense, and their meat leaner, as well. But as with all proteins, the preparation makes a big difference when it comes to what wine might pair best.

Not all game is necessarily gamy.

Hank Shaw's venison meatballs need an amply fruity red to balance the sweetness of the sauce. Argentinean Malbec, plummy and peppery, would do the trick just fine.

Broadly speaking, for any lean, richly flavored, four-legged game—elk, antelope, even wild boar—a spicy, cool-climate Syrah is also an excellent choice, either from the Northern Rhône Valley in France or from California's Pacific Coast.

For game birds—duck, pheasant, quail, and so on—Pinot Noir is a hard choice to beat. Its ripe berry notes and light earthiness seem to have been created for the flavors of wild birds.

Beyond those options, keep in mind that the savory aromas and flavors of older, aged wines—earthiness, hints of bracken and mushroom, leather notes—are superb wild game partners. For those of us who don't have extensive cellars (i.e., almost everyone), one easy option is gran reserva Rioja; there are plenty of wines from the exceptional 2010 vintage, for instance, still on the market for less than $35. —Ray Isle

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Ray Isle
RayIsle headshot 2 copy

Title: Executive Wine Editor, Food & Wine

Location: New York City

Education: -BA, Rice University -MA, Boston University -Stegner Fellow in Writing, Stanford University

Expertise: wine, spirits, cocktails, travel.

Ray Isle is one of the wine world's foremost writers and speakers. He has been writing about wine, spirits, and cocktails for 20 years, regularly appears on national television and in other media, and speaks at wine and food events around the globe.

Experience: Ray Isle is the executive wine editor at Food & Wine, and the wine and spirits editor for Travel + Leisure. He writes Food & Wine's monthly "Bottle Service" column, and contributes regular print and online features about wine, spirits, and wine-related travel to both brands. His articles have also appeared in Departures, The Washington Post, Time, and more. Ray has been nominated three times for the James Beard Award in beverage writing and is a two-time winner of the IACP Award for Narrative Beverage Writing. His book Real Wine: What It Is, Who Makes It, Where to Find It is forthcoming in 2023 from Scribner Books.

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