Daring Pairing: Red Wine with Fish

Fish can work with red wine...sometimes...

Red Wine with Fish

You know you’ve heard it…you’ve probably even lived it.  It’s the ultimate food and wine pairing cliché, chanted like a mantra by those who know just-a-little about wine.  Or food.  Or the pairing thereof.  So, here goes – and please don’t even think about taking this out of context or daring to quote me on this…it’s “white with fish, red wine with meat.” Now, as far as clichés go, this is not the worst.  There is some very good reasoning behind this line, and it is very true that red wine tends to overpower the delicate flavors of fish.

Here’s the truth behind the story.  The danger of a red wine and fish combo has to do with salt, acid, and tannin as well as delicacy of flavor.  It has even been noted that the iron content of red wine can be responsible for an overly “fishy” aftertaste as a result of a red wine and fish combination.

Salt, as well, can be vey tough on wine, especially red wine.  Salty foods tend to combine well with the acidity in most white wines, but salt clashes with tannin – plain and simple. It you want to try to experience this for yourself, have a handful of salted pretzels and followed by a gulp of Napa Cab. The combination can cause a bitter, metallic taste and mouthfeel when the two combine in just the wrong way.  So, the salt naturally present in most seafood, as well as the salt added in preparation, can cause an unpleasant effect when matched with high-tannin wines.  It’s not the color…it’s the tannin.

Then there is the acidity.  Many fish dishes are finished with lemon…the zing of acidity from that lemon wedge on the side of the plate adds a liveliness to a fish preparation that can otherwise be bland.  If your fish preparation doesn’t include lemon, it is likely to have some acidic ingredient such as capers, tomatoes, or even pickles mixed into mayonnaise and called tartar sauce.  As you know if you’ve read “The Real Rules of Food and Wine Pairing (see my posts from May 2011) acidity in a dish requires an equal acidic zing in the wine.  Most white wines are high in acid, which makes them a good match for the acidity in a fish dish.  Most red wines, on the other hand, are low acid.  That zing you get in a red wine is most likely from tannin or bitterness.  Acidity and bitterness may be feel the same on your palate but they interact with food in radically different ways. 

Thus, a cliché is born, and now we have what many people think is a food pairing rule.

So…it’s possible to pair red wine with fish…we just need to define a “fish-worthy red wine.”  Here goes: 

Low Tannin

Higher Acidity

Moderate Flavor Intensity

Light to Medium Body

Here is Miss Jane’s list of “Fish-Worthy Red Wines”.  Try one the next time you have salmon, monkfish or snapper, and let me know how it goes!

Pinot Noir…From Burgundy, Oregon, California or New Zealand

Beaujolais…Maybe your best bet!

Chianti and other wines made with Sangiovese

Cabernet Franc from California

Chinon – Cab Franc from the Loire

Barbera…Piedmont’s easy drinking red

Try it with a Beaujolais Cru!

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

4 Responses to Daring Pairing: Red Wine with Fish

  1. cassius says:

    Valpolicella, Pelaverga, Ruché, lighter-style Grenaches and Mencías, Mondeuse, St Laurent… just never, ever Carignan.

    • bubblyprof says:

      Agree, agree to all of the above! I love Ruche’, I wonder if it will continue to be popular now that Randall Graham isn’t making it anymore. As for Carignan…how about a big, juicy steak with garlic mushrooms and a side of pommes frites!

  2. mel says:

    Never tried red wine with fish but it looks like it can be done. Can they work with sword fish?

    • bubblyprof says:

      Absolutely!! Swordfish is one of the best seafood matches for red wine because of its firm texture and mild flavor. Try a grilled swordfish with roasted red bell pepper butter served with Oregon Pinot Noir. You will love it!

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