After traveling across the ocean and the continental United States to college, it turned out that vegetarianism—well, pescatarianism—was pretty easy to follow at a crunchy east coast liberal arts college. I never missed pork or beef or chicken, ate a lot of peanut butter and Goldfish, and was a generally happy camper, gastronomically speaking. Since graduating, I’ve introduced fowl of all sorts back into my diet, and since pregnancy, bacon is familiar territory, but in generally fish finds its way onto my plate fairly often. Unwilling to sacrifice my love of red wine for my arbitrary dietary choices, I’ve often dabbled in red wine and fish pairings, a long pronounced no-no in many food and wine pairing discussions. I’m happy to announce there are scads of options for people like me.
First things first: When you talk about pairing wines and food, it’s important to consider the weight of each. Not literally, don’t whip out a scale, but the heft of the punches the dish and the wine individually pack. If your food and wine don’t match in weight (or at least get close), chances are one will trump the other. With wine, a quick recap, we can consider the weight or body of a wine by comparing it to milk: skim milk is just a tad richer than water, so we’ll call it light. Whole milk is more viscous so we’ll call it medium-bodied. And heavy cream is thick and creamy, totally palate coating and is therefore heavy or full-bodied. They all spawn from the same material, but coat your palate differently.
To put that in the context of actual wines, consider the classic Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir: These are notoriously “light” wines, meaning they won’t coat the inside of your mouth as much as heftier bottles will and are more likely to be called refreshing than rich. Medium-bodied wines include many Tempranillos, Zinfandels, or Verdejos (a Spanish grape, see my article on the Pinot Grigio Problem for more!). Wines dubbed heavy or full-bodied more often include Cabernet Sauvignon and heavily oaked Chardonnay. There are white and red expressions of all weights of wine, something to keep in mind when we get to our dishes.
We’re talking fish here, but fish are just as heterogeneous as wines when it comes to texture, richness, and preparation. What’s the fish’s texture? Is it delicate, white, and flakey? Is it an oily fish? Was it cooked with citrus and herbs? Is there a cream or reduction sauce? What’s your garnish? What’s the most powerful flavor on the dish? When you’re picking out what glass you want to join you for dinner, consider the table as a whole.
One thing, probably the source for that earlier discounted red wine and fish pairing rule, fish oil is generally not a friend to wine’s tannins. The combination of the two chemically creates an unpleasant and persistent metallic taste that’ll dominate whatever else you may taste. And while I’m not an expert, but I do have a few favorite dishes and red wine pairings that I’d love to share. Some Ideas
I’m a big fan of salmon, perfectly portioned and cooked to medium-rare glory atop almost anything. It’s one of those fish that is actually a no brainer for red wine because it’s a heavy fish with plenty of good fat and flavor to stand up to whatever tannin may be present.
One of my favorite salmon dishes of late is soy and miso glazed with some stir fried bak choy, apple, and edamame underneath. With some obvious Asian inspiration, it’s a little tougher to nail down a perfect wine off the top of your head. It’s not particularly earthy or spicy, but it does include some umami flavors, rich and savory combined with sharp, bitter, and crisp from the stir fry. That’s a lot to deal with all at once. Surprisingly, the best wines I found to accompany it are a New World (in this case meaning generally not from France) Pinot Noir, which has a long history of salmon-pairing, or better yet, a medium-bodied Rioja.
The Rioja was a surprise to me. I knew I loved this particular bottle, a 2005 from Rioja Alta that we had a lot of at the time, and I knew I was eating this Japanese-inspired dish, but I figured if I liked both, at least I could enjoy them separately. Turns out, the savory combination of fresh and dried cherries, dried herby tobacco, and balanced but not overwhelming acidity that Tempranillo (Rioja’s primary grape) has naturally worked beautifully with those umami flavors, played right to the natural sweetness of the vegetables, and made the whole dish seem a little more emphatically itself. That’s what a good pairing should do.
When I’m not pregnant, I’m generally a fan of shellfish and love paella made with mussels, clams, shrimp, and other exoskeletoned beasts. Paella is not a light or delicate dish, not shy about flavor and when it’s made properly has a ton of developed flavor starting from the stock used to make the rice up to the final seafood garnish itself. While you could have a lovely glass of Albariño or something light and delicate, I always feel better off with a glass of sleek, elegant, full-flavored, but not tannic, red wine from the northwest of Spain, Mencia.
Now, the first time I did this, my mind was blown. This red wine wasn’t astringent and didn’t lack any flavor or fruit, but it made the shellfish taste more like the ocean, which in turn brought out the aromatic and on-the-palate perfume of the wine. You can find this grape in any range of price points, but from the bottom up, the general characteristic is snappy red fruit flavors floating on top of deeper, darker mineral tones that match it so perfect to the shell part of the shellfish. Try it with lobster, try it with shrimp scampi, try it with scallops. It’s a game changer. I’ll defend it any day.
Bottom line, don’t forgo your glass of red if fish happens to be on the menu. In many if not most situations, if it’s important to you to find it, there’s a way to pair a red one with your fish, whether it came from field or stream. Recently at dinner, my father-in-law had a grilled fish with a Cabernet-based Bordeaux. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but he raved. “I’m not a fish person,” he said, “ but man, did that hit the spot.” It all depends on what you’re looking for.
Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.
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