We’ve all heard the tired cliché, red wine with meat and white wine with fish. I’m just curious as to who made these rules? In all my travels, I have yet to find where it is etched in stone that these rules are steadfast. I seriously doubt the wine gods consented to such mindless twaddle. As best I can conclude it was someone with limited cooking skills and not a very creative palate for wine.
First and foremost, most fish dishes have an acidic component, and more often than not, white wines have more acidity than reds. For my palate, matching a dish’s acidity is a very important aspect to wine pairing. Keeping that in mind, we must remember that some red wines have more prominent acidity than others. Does this make them a viable candidate to serve with fish? Absolutely! Such a wine is definitely appropriate as a “fish red.”
It is also important to remember that white wines lack tannins by-and-large, and have lower alcohol content. The result is a lighter-bodied character which will not overwhelm more delicately flavored fish.
Higher acidity, lower tannins, moderate alcohol, not the sort of red wine most of us favor. Or is it? Pinot noir is an ideal selection. A classic Burgundian from Cote de Beaune is of medium body and low tannin. This area produces wines which are perfect to pair with iron-rich fish such as salmon or tuna. Pinot Noir’s blend of red fruit flavors and earthy mushroom notes, are a perfect pairing for fatty, raw cuts like sushi or tartare. I have found that iron-rich fishes bring out more fruity tones in the wine.
Won’t Pinot Noir clash with wasabi? Not to worry, the tannins are not strong enough to cause any upset on the palate. If you prefer an even lighter Pinot Noir, I am quick to recommend either an Alsatian or German wine. When I lived in California, I often paired salmon with a Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir.
Since salmon and tuna are most red wine friendly, I am always experimenting with various pairings to see what satisfies my palate. My only rule with wine pairings is simply, what tastes the best together and compliments each other. I am also fond of pairing salmon with Cru Gamay from Beaujolais. Gamay grapes typically produce wines that are light-bodied and fruity.
Bluefish is full-flavored, fatty, and meaty. Since it is a fuller flavored fish, a light red can often work quite well as a compliment. Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Grenache are all excellent selections to pair with bluefish.
In Europe, monkfish is quite popular. I have found that a Merlot from Bordeaux is flexible enough to be paired with fish. The wine’s lush fruit and light structure make it the perfect accompaniment to fish dishes that are lightly flavored. A fresh and fruity Gamay also is a nice match for monkfish.
Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley is the perfect match for such fish as mackerel or trout. The valley’s cooler climate makes for a lighter-bodied, but well-focused wine. The density of the wine’s spice notes pairs well with earthy dishes, or oily, strong flavored fish.
I eat a lot of Spanish cuisine, particularly cod, which is an interesting dish to pair with red wine. A Spanish Rioja, you are quick to question? Spanish wines are often big, bold, and heavy on oak. Reserva and Gran Reserva wines often require years to open up, and will most certainly overpower fish dishes. However, Joven and Crianza style wines use little or no oak. In these styles of Spanish wine, the Tempranillo grape’s natural acidity and red fruit character shine through, while tannins keep things dry, but not too tight. These characteristics are a great match for cod’s mild flavor.
We all know that Italy’s Piedmont region is acclaimed for the Nebbiolo grape which produces Barolo and Barbaresco. However, let’s not forget Barbera. Traditional styles of Barbera are fruity, fairly light, and not very tannic. Keeping these characteristics in mind, Barbera is a wonderful pairing with fish. Give it a try with Arctic char, squid, or octopus.
When pairing wines with different foods, preparation is also a major factor. With a fish or seafood dish that is very spicy, or the sauce is heavily seasoned, a red wine will simply not work. When such a dish is accompanied by a red wine, the combination will taste rather metallic in your mouth.
Let’s not forget Rose wines. A Rose is a wonderful accompaniment to light and delicate fish flavors. Rest assured that Rose will serve to enhance, and not over power the dish. Rose also pairs very nicely with clams. So before you are quick to reach for a white Bordeaux or a Sauvignon Blanc, consider a dry Rose.
Living in Europe, I have come to appreciate strongly flavored fishes that are salty and taste of the sea. Europeans favor dishes that include anchovies, sardines, herring, and mackerel. I have had limitless fun in experimenting and pairing red wines from Greece, Italy, France, and Spain, to name a few.
In conclusion, many red wines pair wonderfully with fish, and making such discoveries is part of the experience. So the next time you sit down to lobster, consider Pinot Noir. Red Snapper, scallops, or shrimp in garlic, don’t rule out Merlot.
As for me, I am about to enjoy a grilled Mahi Mahi steak. The only question is the wine, a young Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, unoaked Spanish red, light Italian red or an Australian Tarrango? Decisions, decisions, decisions … “But that my friends, is another story …”