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Matching Wine with Fish and Seafood

Breaking the myth that white wine is the exclusive appropriate selection for whatever swims.

As a restaurant group whose menu mix is predominantly seafood we often find ourselves encouraging diners to indulge their natural red wine preference, despite whatever myths they may have absorbed over the years about white wine being the exclusive appropriate selection for whatever swims. Fortunately, guests today are far more versatile in their selection process than was the case only a few years ago and we are finding a greater openness to recommendations that venture beyond the traditional: fish and seafood with a dry white table wine.

This is largely due to the incorporation of new flavor influences and cooking techniques from our culinary teams which have modified the once automatic equation of white wine with fish. In other words, to know that you’ll be ordering scallops is not all that’s relevant in choosing a wine. How is this chameleon-like seafood being prepared? Is it raw, poached, boiled, baked, broiled, grilled, roasted, deep fried, or blackened? Is there an understated creamy sauce to accompany it, a lemon chive butter, a savory relish, a grapefruit soy ginger reduction or a hot and sour Asian preparation? While we encourage guests to drink whatever they’ll most enjoy, we also find that a sizable number are looking for recommendations to complement specific dishes and that “one size” does not fit all. If they are truly open-minded, we ask them to consider the texture, or “weight,” of the dish (and how the cooking technique influences the species of fish) and to consider the dominant mix of flavors.

For guests that are not looking to get too in depth with texture or flavor matching, we offer tart high acid wines as the best overall solution. Think Sauvignon Blanc, bone dry Loire Chenin Blanc (especially Savennieres) and dry Alsace or Australian Riesling if the preference is for white; Champagne or other traditional method dry sparklers (especially Blanc de Blancs!) if there’s a desire to liven things up; low tannin reds such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, Barbera and some Sangiovese if, like many today, red is the absolute color of choice; or, if we’re looking to be very a la mode, dry crisp Roses made from the same grape varieties as the reds. In other words, cool climate wines, especially if they show minerality and edginess to complement their tart flavors. This, to a majority of palates, is the right ballpark.

For those interested in a more tailored, customized recommendation, we ask our staff to consider first the species of fish and its density, or “chewiness.” We offer a spectrum that ranges from raw bar selections, to sole, scrod, haddock, scallops, shrimp, trout, halibut, bass, crab, lobster, salmon, and steaks made of swordfish and tuna. The first aesthetic principle we emphasize is “light with light” and “full with full.” So, if we are recommending a wine for a dish on the lighter side we start thinking low alcohol, unoaked, and cool climate (Muscadet, anyone?); the higher up the density scale we go, the more body, and the more intensity the wine needs to balance the fish (barrel-fermented and oak-aged Chardonnay with lobster, bold red wines from moderate to warm climates, like Rhone blends or Cabernet Sauvignon, with tuna).

The key to the match is asking the right questions in a manner that clearly shows there are no right and wrong answers, that we’re truly interested in finding the most delicious wine accompaniment for the individual diner’s palate. We obviously carry a lot of wines that are lighter in style, a lot that are medium bodied and many to choose among that are quite full. So the next step is to find recommendations that echo the strongest flavor in the preparation. In other words, if we’re looking to match a filet of sole, we’re in the lighter wine category. How are our chefs preparing the fish though? Is it “naked?” We ask if the guest prefers a more subtly flavored wine (automatically going to Europe, something like Alsace Pinot Blanc, or Falanghina from Campania), or a slightly more assertive flavor (a wine with some fruit ripeness, such as a German halb-trocken, or a South African Chenin Blanc). We ask if the guest squeezes lemon on the sole (Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, or Pouilly-Fume). If the preparation has a Meuniere sauce, we go in the direction of a white Burgundy or perhaps an Arneis or Viognier. If there are sun dried tomatoes, we start thinking higher acid, delicate roses or reds (Sancerre or Txakoli Rose, Cote Chalonaise Burgundy, cru Beaujolais or Austrian Zweigelt). If there’s a creamy, velvety sauce, a slightly richer, more medium textured wine (subtly oaked Chardonnay) would be the choice. And, of course, for all of these preparations, we are more than happy to recommend a Champagne or Cremant de Bourgogne as a delightful accompaniment.

So once we consider how the fish is prepared, how cooking transforms its texture, and what its accompaniments are, we also consider those diners who are more “rule bound,” those who don’t want to embarrass themselves by making what they fear their guests might think is a faux pas. For those we discretely offer the following verbal cues:

Tart, higher acid wines (white, pink, red, or bubbly) balance and accentuate most seafood flavors, especially those where citrus plays a part in the preparation or where the fish is deep fried or served in a creamy sauce.

Oak-influenced wines (white or red) share an affinity with grilled fish.

Fruitier wines, including those with noticeable sugar, complement fish preparations that are spicy, or that have a combination of balanced fruit and spice flavors.  

Shellfish is beautifully offset by bubbles, or other tart, crisp, lighter style whites.

And, if the guest asks, there is one no-no we indicate: oaky whites and tannic whites sometimes cause frowns with raw shellfish. But only if they ask!

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