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Red Wine + Fish, Made Easy

by Jim Clarke
October 2008

We’re moving into autumn: time for red wine. But it’s not so cold yet that we’re letting braised short ribs and roasts take over the menu; there’s still plenty of time for fish and the like, especially if we’re hoping to avoid putting on some winter weight too early. In this time of year, we can have our cake and eat it, too, breaking the reds out of the cellar for a meal that comes from the sea.

The notion that a red wine can pair well with fish has certainly gotten a lot of play in the past decade or more, putting to rest the “white with fish, red with meat” cliché. And people who prefer red wines have gratefully pulled the corks on their Cabs and Pinot Noirs and Syrahs and so on. As they should—the first thing to consider in pairing is your own preference, as drinking a type of wine you don’t care for isn’t going to be a pleasure (even if it’s “the perfect pairing” with your broiled grouper).

Even with whites, we’d rarely pair a dish with both a big California Chardonnay and a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc. So it is with reds, and the best red wines with fish…are those that kind of resemble white wines. Many fish dishes have an acidic component; most white wines have more acidity than reds, and matching the dish’s acidity is an important aspect of wine pairing. But some reds have more prominent acidity than others, making them good “fish reds.” Whites also lack tannins, which can be a major component in many reds, but not all of them. And finally, whites are by-and-large lower in alcohol, and their resulting lighter-bodied character is less likely to overwhelm more delicately flavored fish.

Higher acidity, lower tannins, moderate alcohol—does it sound like we’re talking about some wimpy reds? Blockbuster Napa Cabs might not be the right call, but there are some well-known grapes and regions that can come into play.

Current fave Pinot Noir, for example. In its classic, Burgundian manifestation, it’s a medium-bodied, low tannin wine with a blend of red fruit flavors and earthy, mushroom like notes. Burgundian Pinot is a great match with tuna, especially dishes using fatty, raw tuna cuts like sushi or tartare. Often the iron-rich fish brings out more fruity tones in the wine; in this match, the slight tannins work well with the red meat of the fish, and aren’t strong enough to clash with a spot of wasabi. If you’re working with an especially light or delicate recipe, consider Alsatian and German Pinot Noirs (which are finding their way to the US in increasing numbers), which can be even lighter than their Burgundian role models. Recommended Pairing

A classic wine pairing maxim that can come into play is “what grows together, goes together.” Few New World regions have cuisines so clearly local as to make ready application of this guideline, but Oregon is certainly among them. The Pacific Northwest state’s full-bodied take on the Pinot Noir has proved a handy match with salmon from the region’s rivers. The fish’s rich oils can take on the full, more powerful wines, which, while structured and firm, are not too tannic. Many Californian Pinots from the Sonoma coast or Russian River Valley offer similar qualities, but are generally lusher and more fruit-driven. Recommended Pairing

From what I said earlier about tannins, body, and acidity, you might think that Bordeaux grape varieties weren’t going to make an appearance in this piece. Well, Cabernet Sauvignon would be an uncomfortable marriage, but Bordeaux’s most planted grape, Merlot, is flexible enough that some renditions can find their way alongside fish. Its leanings towards lush fruit but light structure make it suitable for fish dishes where the fish itself might even be mildly flavored, but the accompaniments have some weight and substance. Even firmer, more structured Merlots can do the job if they’ve had a couple of years to age and soften—many mid-price 2001 St. Emilions, for example, might find a worthwhile place with a fish dinner. Recommended Pairing

Outside of Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc (parent to both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) has another home territory: the Loire Valley. The valley’s cool climate makes for a lighter-bodied but well-focused wine, with spice notes and sometimes intense fruit. That density and spice makes this style of Cabernet Franc pairs well with earthy dishes, or oily, strongly flavored fish like mackerel or trout. Recommended Pairing

France, despite what the French might tell you, is not the sole repository of classic wine styles. Spain’s Rioja certainly owes quite a bit to Bordeaux and the interest the Bordelaise took in their wines when Phylloxera began devastating the French vineyards in the later 19th century, but it has its own grapes and its own historical identity. For a long time, the focus was on the Reserva and Gran Reserva styles, heavy on oak and often needing years to open up. More modern styles sometimes seem to emulate Napa Cabernet. But some producers haven’t let the joven or crianza styles fall by the wayside, and these categories use little or no oak–less than a year, by law, for joven, and generally a year or so for crianza–that lets the Tempranillo grape’s natural acidity and red fruit character shine through, while tannins keep things dry but not too tight. Recommended Pairing

Finally, Barbera. Not a classic red to you? In Piedmont, Barbera may play second fiddle to Nebbiolo, the grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, but that doesn’t mean locals haven’t embraced it as a red they can drink all-year-round with all sorts of food, including fish. Nebbiolo and Barbera both tend toward higher acidity and often sport a definite note of cherry, but they part ways when it comes to the contents of their grape skins: Nebbiolo gets intense tannins, if little color, from its skins, while Barbera can be a deep, dark ruby color, but have little or no tannins. Some modern Barberas fill in that gap with oak-aging, but traditional Barbera is fruity, fairly light, and not very tannic—great for fish. Recommended Pairing

Recommended:

Burgundy
Try Catherine & Claude Maréchale’s Savigny-les-Beaune Vieilles Vignes 2005 ($40) with Kerry Simon's Tuna Tartare with Potato Gaufrettes; I especially like the way the beet vinaigrette complements the earthy tones in the wine.

Oregon
Try the Domaine Serene ‘Evenstad Reserve’ Pinot Noir 2005 ($47)with Alfred Portale’s Salmon with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Brussels Sprout Leaves, and Fingerling Potatoes; the mushrooms are another Pacific Northwest specialty that suit the wine, complementing its own earthy notes.

Bordeaux
Try the Virginie de Valandraud St. Emilion 2003 ($40)(predominantly Merlot, but blended with some Malbec) with Todd Gray’s Risotto of Summer Tomatoes with Bacon-Wrapped Monkfish and Garden Basil. This is fish for winter, with the risotto and bacon adding more deep notes to the fish’s own powerful flavors. The structure and tannins of the wine are a match for those ingredients which can “suck up” some of the tannins in the wine, leaving the fish free to express itself. The wine’s fruit and floral notes float free as well.

Loire Valley
Try the Domaine des Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny Rouge ‘Terres Chaudes’ 2006 ($25) with Akhtar Nawab’s Smoked and Grilled Spanish Mackerel, Beet Bouillon, and Brussels Sprouts; the smoked fish and fall vegetables both work well with the wine, which is medium-bodied and remarkably silky, standing up to the dish’s flavors but not getting in their way.

Rioja
Try the Hermanos Peciña Joven Rioja 2007 ($15) with Gabriel Kreuther’s Chatham Cod Crusted with Chorizo, White Navy Bean Puree, and Xeres Vinegar Jus; the wine’s got a great mix of red and dark fruits, but its acidity and body suit the relatively mild flavor of the cod and even blanace with the vinegar jus.

Piedmont
Try the Brezza Barbera d’Alba ‘Cannubi Muscatel’ 2006 ($25) with Giancarla Bodoni’s Arctic Char with Eggplant Puree. There’s no tannins to interfere with the light spice touches in the eggplant purée, and the acidity and pure fruit notes let the char shine through, too. Don’t be confused by the vineyard name; Cannubi “Muscatel” is not a grape – this is 100% Barbera - but a vineyard name, a sub-section of the Cannubi vineyard more generally.

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