“Red wine with red meat. White wine with fish and chicken”, is an extremely simplistic, and not completely correct answer to the question of what wines go well with fish.
When selecting a wine to compliment a seafood dish, there are many factors to consider. First, there are seven major types of white wine: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling, Pinot Gris, Viognier, and Gewürztraminer. And, there are several Rose’s that are good candidates for some seafoods. There are many, many varieties within these types, each with different characteristics depending on country of origin, the grape harvest for that year, and individual crafting by wine-makers. And there are both dry and sweet versions of each.
That was the wine side of the equation. On the seafood side, there are thousands of edible species of fish, sharks and rays, and mollusks in both fresh, and saltwater. There are all kinds of different flavors, and they can be prepared in thousands of ways, such as broiled, fried, poached, with spicy sauces, heavily spiced, dried, soups, stews, chowder, etc… So how do we go about selecting a wine for a particular seafood feast?
First, we have to determine how in-depth we wish to go. If you want to really serve a world-class repast, the wine should originate from the same country as the entrée. This is not a deal-breaker, but just the top-of-the-line dining experience. Next, we need to know how the wine types taste, in general. And we need to know how the entrée is supposed to taste. Some white wines are full, and fruity, while others are light and crisp. There are a few guidelines to go by for deciding what wines go well with fish, but they are not written in stone:
- Light wines go with light foods.
- Heavy foods require heavy wine.
- Delicate foods need delicate wine
- Hearty foods need hearty wine.
If you see a pattern here, it is not by accident. Some of it is logic. A delicate Chenin Blanc would be completely overcome by a plate of spicy Blackened Mahi-Mahin(Dorado), or Stuffed Bluefish with Masala. Likewise, a succulent Dover Sole with Herbed Butter would become totally dominated by a full-bodied Chardonnay.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Champagne, Asti Spumante, Prosecco, and other sparkling wines-Nothing compliments fried foods like a good California White Champagne, and fish is no different. Most white wines will lose significant character when paired with heavy batters, and coatings. Sparkling wines are the exception. The carbonation cuts right through the weight of fried seafood, and marries with it like they were made for each other. Sparkling wines are also great with caviar and roe dishes.
- Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Viognier, and Fume Blanc-the full body of these wines make them perfect with heavier-flavored fishes such as striped bass, bluefish, carp, mackerel, grilled tuna, crab, lobster, oysters, and broth-based soups.
- Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Marsanne, and similar-These are the heavy-weights of the white wine world. Their extra-hearty characters stand up to even the spiciest and heaviest of seafoods, such as Asian, Cajun, Italian, or Latin recipes. Wonderful with Seafood Gumbo, or Jambalaya.
- Albarino, Verdelho-these are Spain and Portugal’s gifts to the world. And great news! They are now being grown in California. I have never been able to put my finger on it exactly, but something about the slight peachy, or floral after-taste of these delectable beverages make them ideal for grilled shellfish. They go with scallops, mussels, lobster, crab, shrimp, clams, and even raw oysters. I am almost unable to eat a bowl of my favorite food, Oyster Stew, without opening a bottle of Portugese Albarino.
- Dry Fino Sherry-this is a major exception to the general rules. This wine is delectable with delicate shrimp cocktail, even though it breaks all the rules. It is painfully dry, and a bit on the salty side. The flavors blend with the shrimp’s unique musky sweetness, and the stringent horseradish, to create an almost spiritual culinary experience.
- Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio-light, crisp, and slightly fruity, these bring out the best in delicate grilled, poached or baked fish, such as halibut, haddock, cod, walleye, crappie, catfish, grilled shark and stingray, and even octopus, sushi, and calamari. They are exquisite with Snow Crab Legs.
- Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache-I know, these are all light reds, but certain piscatorial entrees beg for the denser flavor and body of a light red, such as shark, mackerel, swordfish, grilled tuna, salmon and bluefish. But don’t mix them with heavily spiced fish, or extra-spicy sauces, because it will result in a somewhat unpleasant metallic after-taste.
- Rose, and other Blush wines-these can be substituted for Chardonnays, and in some cases, work even better, especially with tomato-based soups like Manhattan Clam Chowder, or Red Shrimp and Crab Bisque.
These are just guidelines and ‘go-tos’. The final authority is YOU. Drink what you like, when you like. Everyone is different, with different tastes.
If you want to put the crowning touch on your meal, I mentioned earlier about pairing the country of origin of the wine with the ethnic cuisine. This is just an extra touch, like putting the cherry on top of a parfait. It is not always possible to do this. For example, with a delectable Thai Coconut Shrimp dish, it would be difficult. Thailand is not known for exporting high-quality wines. You would need to fall back on your Go-Tos for that type of entrée. But for cuisine from Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and the US, it is really cool to be able to match the countries.
Don’t get discouraged by the myriad of choices. Chefs and Sommeliers spend a lot of time learning the intricacies of taste interactions. You won’t learn it overnight. Nevertheless, as with many things, getting there is half the fun. Experiment with different combinations. It’s difficult to go completely wrong. With a little experience, it will become second nature to determine what wines go well with fish.