Red Wine with Fish, Revisited

The concept of red wine with fish is now as firmly entrenched in culinary phraseology as red wine with meat and white wine with fish. Exactly how does this work, and why?

Almost twenty years ago David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson wrote a book about it (Red Wine with Fish -- out of print today), explicating a basic methodology that also applies to all wine and food matching. The thinking going that all wines and foods find their matches in two ways:

Similarities - When there are similar taste sensations in both a dish and a wine (example: the buttery sauce in a fish dish enhanced by the creamy or buttery texture of an oak barrel fermented white wine)

Contrasts - When sensations in a wine contrast with sensations in a dish to positive effect (example: the sweetness of a white wine balancing the saltiness of a dish like ham or cured sausage, and vice-versa)

The how's, in the simplest way I can put it:

  • Since, more than anything, it is the bitter or hard tannin components found mostly in red wine that are obstacles to matching fish or shellfish (i.e. excessive contrast, like ketchup on ice cream), you turn to red wines with soft or almost no tannin to speak of.
  • Since almost all fish and shellfish like wines with some degree of acidity (i.e. complimenting contrast, like lemon squeezed on a filet, or walnuts on a sundae), you utilize red wines with at least a modicum of tartness.
  • Since red wines are indeed best with meatier dishes, you apply this principle to meatier, as opposed to delicate, types of fish (going for heightened similarity, like syrup on ice cream)
  • Since many dishes we eat are sums of their parts (example: a banana-cherry-walnuts-hot fudge-whipped cream sundae as opposed to a plain scoop of vanilla), we increase the chances of successful red wine matching by cooking our seafood with ingredients or techniques that are more likely to match red wines in terms of similarity and contrast.
  • Since red wines, by nature (i.e. fermented with skins, as opposed to whites which are not), are more complex than white wines, we go one step further in our food preparation by consciously utilizing ingredients with some degree of umami -- "delicious," high amino acid related sensations, which soft, complex styles of red wine such as Pinot Noir love (re my previous, Desconstructing Umami).

In the restaurant business the option of serving red wine with fish has been just what the doctor ordered because of the current consumer preference for red over white wines. In a multi-course dinner, for example, we can start with a sparkling or white wine with a seafood appetizer course, and then dive directly into a succession of red wines matched with either seafood or red meats.

Then there is this simple fact, explaining why: many seafood courses simply taste better with a red rather than white wine. Especially red wines the way they are made today -- with more emphasis on smoothness of texture and balance of sensations. Add that to the way we and many of our favorite chefs cook seafood today -- with lots of red wine matching components -- there is all the more reason to drink red with with fish.

Oh, many of us will always have a prediliction for thick, heavy tannin, super powered reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, just like for all the popularity of seafood we will always love a good, charred, juicy chunk of steak. But if you prefer seafood and at the same time red wines, with sensible guidelines dialed into your own tastes there is no reason why you cannot enjoy a "perfect" match in every meal.

One final suggestion before I dive into specifics: if you do indeed enjoy red wines that emphasize softer tannins, more subtle balance and intricate perfumes rather than powerful singularities, you might want to invest in large round, bowl shaped "Burgundy" glasses (at least 15, going up to 22 ounces). These glasses (as opposed to more elongated, tulip shaped "Bordeaux" glasses) not only provide more inside surface area for fragrances to emanate from, but they also have a tendency to drop the taste of wine closer to the tip of the tongue where your taste buds sensitive to sweetness are concentrated. When you taste from tulip shaped wine glasses, on the other hand, wine falls on the middle of the tongue, closer to where taste buds sensitive to bitterness (hence, the tannins of red wine) are located. In other words, if you want to feel the power and density of fuller tannin red wines -- those that match red meats better than seafoods -- then you use tulips. But if you want to enjoy the softness, delicacy of fruit, balance and harmony of reds more apt to match seafoods, then ideally you should be drinking from larger, rounder wine glasses. This is not a "rule," mind you; but it is more likely to get you where you want to be if you prefer red wine with fish.

Some specific red wine-friendly foods:

Hawaiian Tuna
Seared rare or prepared raw (i.e. variations of sashimi, tartare or poke), the higher grades of Pacific ahi tuna are the seafood lovers' steak. Because of its red fleshed, high fat meatiness, tuna is one of those fishes that 99% of the time are better matched with red wines than with whites. Negligibly tannic, fruity red wines, like France's Beaujolais vinified from the Gamay Noir au Jus Blanc grape (Joshua Wesson often describes this grape as a "cross dresser" -- a red that thinks it's a white), are natural tuna matches. But when you crust it with bitter peppercorns, char it with grill lines, or dress it up in sauces beefed up with earthy soy, umami rich veal stocks or meaty demiglace, all of the sudden red wines with stronger tannin underpinnings find balancing notes of similarity. The all star choice in this day and age of Sideways is, of course, Pinot Noir. "Pinot Noir with everything" is a mantra in many restaurants today, and for good reason: it is the one grape variety producing reds overlapping into virtually all food types -- seafoods, leaner cuts of red meats, playfully cooked "other white" meats looking for moderate tannin, and even salads and appetizers better matched with wines with perceptible underpinnings of acidity.

Smoky Salmon
Although pinker, less meaty, and slightly stronger in fish oils than tuna, salmon still falls into a category of fish that are usually better matched with red than white wines. I'd put this percentage of this working at 80%; but when you apply preparations resulting in more aggressive sensations -- like smoking, wood roasting or grilling, or crusting with pungent herbs and/or peppercorns -- you strike notes of similarity pushing the percentage of successful red wine matching closer to 99%. Particularly Pinot Noir, a wine best finished in French oak, adding the woodsmoky qualities that amplify the grape's intrinsic spice qualities. In the Pacific-Northwest, for instance, Pinot Noir has long been a cultural gastronomic match as natural as Chianti in Tuscany. Native American inspired, open fire, alder or cedar plank cooked salmon is an easy one; but also other regional inflections such as pan seared salmon finished with wild berry infused demiglace (bringing out the berry perfumed qualities of Oregon grown Pinot Noir), or salmon glazed with sweetened soy marinades or ponzus reflecting the strong Asian-Pacific influences (both sweet and umami sensations mingling with the grape's perfumed, earth and spice qualities). But it's not just Pinot Noir. In the past, the Wine Spectator's Harvey Steiman has made credible cases for fruit forward, zesty edged red Zinfandels as natural salmon matches. When the salmon is roasted with, say, herbs like basil, dill or chives, or even finished with sun dried tomato or cheese, the even zestier, woodsy, finely textured red wines vinified from the Sangiovese grape (i.e. Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Rosso di Montalcino) might make more sense. Try salmon simply charcoal grilled with pungent vegetables (squash, fennel, scallions, etc.), and see if even a lower acid, yet soft and smoky nuanced red like Tempranillo (from Spain's Rioja or Ribera del Duero) doesn't make a seamless match. Indubitably.

Oysters Any Way
At the Grand Central Oyster Bar, conveniently esconced in New York's Grand Central Station, they'll tell you that a soft, zippy Pinot Noir is just as good a match for raw oysters as a sharply dry Sauvignon Blanc. This might not work for you, but if it does it's because of umami factors -- the savory, high amino acid components of oysters combined with propensity of softer tannin, spice and earth nuanced reds like Pinot Noir to embrace that sensation. But if you're skeptical, here's the trick: grill the suckers (over wood or charcoal on a grill topper or just aluminum foil punched with holes), and you'll find the smoky sensations in both wine and bivalve working in even more delicious synchronicity. But whether you're consuming oysters by themselves, baked in any number of ways (from high umami bacon to sweet sensation black beans), or adding them to stews or other mediums (like Southern style oyster stuffed steaks), the point is that oysters are a red wine natural -- don't think twice, it's all right.

Like oysters, strongly earthy mussels -- even when stewed as it usually is in seafood stock and white wine -- are one of those dishes that open up to either crisp dry whites (offering contrasting notes of acidity) or softly textured reds (offering similarities of earth tones). An interesting thing to try is juxtaposing the two wine types, the white served chilled and the red served slightly chilled (60, 90 minutes in the fridge), and you'll see how Wesson and Rosengarten's theorem works in two different ways.

Charred Scallops
One of the longtime signatures of San Francisco's Traci Des Jardins is scallops pieced with truffled mash potatoes. She's also not opposed to browning in butter with smoked bacon and Brussel sprouts, or any ways that arouse the senses with clarity of smell. As far as I'm concerned, whenever scallops are flash charred and scented with earth tones they become dishes for Pinot Noir -- especially those from Burgundy in France, where the Pinot perfume always seem more sharply defined, the tannins more supple, and the terroir notes more pervasive. When scallops are combined with winey balsamic syrups, cured meats like prosciutto, or pungent vegetables like spinach or mushrooms, they are more likely to respond to finely textured reds like Pinot Noir.

Mixed Seafoods
Two of the most famous ways of mixing fish and shellfish together in one dish are in the form of bouillabaisse and cioppino -- the former fused together by one of the most elemental of spices, saffron, and the latter a San Francisco treat laced with tomato and wine. Then there are the endless variations of paella -- rice dishes also based on saffron and cooking in earthy seafood stocks. Whenever you combine seafoods in these classic ways you are essentially piling on a plethora of high umami components -- the one taste sensation that sings most sweetly with soft, multifaceted forms of red wine. Both saffron and tomatoes only intensify the need.

None of this is a matter, as Cole Porter put it, of "anything goes," but rather a matter of what makes sense. If you prefer red wine and you love seafood, then you choose the wines and cook in a way that make it happen. But give Porter his due, because he certainly understood individuality of taste long before most others:

The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today
And black's white today
And day's night today
When most guys today
That women prize today
Are just silly gigolos --
Anything goes!

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