It’s the cabbage that makes it difficult. Corned beef has its own issues, with a cured, salty, tart flavor, but it’s the sulfurous notes of the cabbage that make St. Patrick’s Day wine pairings problematic. If it were just shepherd’s pie it would be easy, the only other question would be lamb or beef? Though either would pair with my favorite shepherd’s pie wine, a Cotes-du-Rhone red. Between corned beef and cabbage and for vegetarians, Colcannon, cabbage and mashed potatoes, cabbage seems to be more prevalent and we’ve been growing it since 1000 BC, so it’s not going anywhere. Honestly cabbage does pair a little easier with the flavors of most beers than with the flavors of most wines, but it can be done. The trick is to work with the sulfur and not try to mask it with overly sweet or harshly tannic wines.
How we prepare the cabbage can have an impact. How many other flavors are in your recipe will also change the dynamics of pairing. Most recipes focus on the brining of the beef with a slow cooking process and the cabbage just thrown in. Some people like to pre-sauté the cut cabbage with some cider vinegar to give a hint of sauerkraut note and lessen some of the other earthy flavors of this cruciferous vegetable, which is actually in the mustard gamily. Cabbage, and its close cousins kale and broccoli, all have stinky kitchen stories attached, but that mustard connection can be an interesting piece to understanding the pungent nature of these very healthy green vegetables. This is also a reason why mustard, either in seed form or in a sauce, is often part of corned beef and cabbage recipes.
Regionality can also give us hint in wine pairing, and though Ireland doesn’t have much of a grape wine tradition, Germany does, and they also consume their fair share of cabbage in multiple forms. Riesling has great complexity, lots of mineral flavors framed by a ripe juiciness that can often be sweet, and a hint of green in its color. The trick is to go a little bit dry, and look for trocken or Dry on the Riesling label. You can also check sugar and alcohol content on the bottle and avoid words like Spatlese or Auslese, which are the sweeter, later-harvested Rieslings. The 11º (which looks like it should be called “Ocean’s Eleven”) has all that bright fruit crispness, some tart minerality and a long finish that we love in drier style Rieslings. The mineral notes work with the sulfur notes rather than compete, and the hint of fruit balances the saltiness of the corned beef. Yes, we’re pairing a red meat with a white wine, but it’s a red meat that’s been brined and is paired with mustard and vinegar flavors, which work better with minerally whites.
The Undone Dry Riesling (which says “Dry” on the label) is another locally available option at a reasonable price. Both wines are available at ABC Fine Wines and Spirits and are each under $15 per bottle. The Undone smells a little sweet but then shocks you with tart citrusy flavors on the palate, with maybe a hint of dry apple cider. On the finish I find the mineral sustain, which cleans the palate and leaves you with a crisp sensation that really plays well with the cabbage and corned beef.
For a red pairing, I might surprise you with a Cru Beaujolais recommendation, but that can wait for another recipe. Look at your recipe for corned beef and cabbage and adapt it to your tastes. Just know that if you don’t care for beer, you do have some wine pairing options for St. Patrick’s Day. So have no fear, and go green, a natural green, without the use of food coloring. You’ll be surprised at how well cabbage can go with the right wine. Cheers!