Tips & Tricks: Red Wine with Fish?

23 05 2011

The very first “ironclad” wine and food pairing rule that I was ever told is so ubiquitous that I’m sure you’ve all heard it too:  red wine with meat, white wine with fish.  But is this prohibition on mixing red wines and fish fact or fiction?  As with any good urban legend, it’s a bit of both.

There really is no caption that can improve on this picture.

First the fact:  it is a good idea to avoid pairing particularly oily foods with wines that are high in tannin (for a longer explanation on what tannin is, click here) because the two combine to produce unpleasant metallic or tinny flavours on the palate.  Generally speaking, fish is quite oily as compared to other cuts of meat, and red wines are the most likely candidates to be high in tannin, as white wines usually have little to no detectable tannins; as a result, it is certainly true that some red wines and some fish will not be a happy mix.  The iodine present in fish can also have a similar negative reaction with tannin (and, at least according to this article, the traces of iron in certain red wines will clash with fish), so following the basic “no red wine with fish” rule can help you avoid disastrous gastronomic consequences.

However, it is fiction to say that red wine and fish can never be successfully paired together.  To avoid the problem discussed above, you need to start with a low-tannin red — Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah need not apply.  Then you just need to follow a few simple rules that apply to food/wine pairing generally:

  • Match the Weight of the Food with the Body of the Wine:  As compared to other meats/proteins, fish is on the lighter side of the scale, so the matching red should be light-bodied, which also means that it will likely be lower in alcohol.
  • Match the Flavour Intensity of the Food & the Wine:  This isn’t about how heavy the food/wine is; it’s about how powerful and pervasive its flavours are.  A single habanero pepper isn’t weighty, but it’s screamingly intense.  Conversely, the flavours of fresh fish tend to be fairly delicate, so you have to be careful to pick a similarly elegant, agile red so as not to overpower it.
  • Match Oily Food with High-Acid Wine:  Wines that are high in acidity are golden with basically any food, but they are particularly good at cutting through fats and oils and cleansing the palate during a greasy meal, either one where the method of cooking (i.e. frying) increases the oiliness or one where the food source itself tends to be oily.  

No, it's not blasphemy...IF you follow the rules.

Putting all this together, the winning red wine that will match up with fish will be (1) low in tannin, (2) light-bodied, (3) delicate and (4) high in acidity.  The two reds that immediately come to mind as ticking all of these boxes are Pinot Noir and Beaujolais.  Pinot Noir is a grape that grows in cooler climates, which leads to it making lighter-bodied wines with high acid content; it also has very thin skins (the primary source of tannin), leading to low-tannin wines.  Some Pinots are made heavier than others, but if you want one that’s very likely to be light, delicate and fruity, try one from Oregon — chances are it will fit the bill.  Beaujolais isn’t a grape at all but a region in the south of Burgundy, France.  The wines there are made from the Gamay grape and are renowned for being light-bodied and extremely low in tannin, so much so that they are often served chilled, almost like a white.  Beaujolais is usually bursting with red fruit flavours and is low in alcohol.  Apart from these two reds, lighter versions of Valipolicella (a wine region in northeast Italy) or Dolcetto (a grape found in northwest Italy) would likely work as well, as would other wines that meet the 4 key criteria.

If you want to punch convention in the face and dole out a glass of red with your next catch of the day, try to aim for a fish that is meatier and not overly oily, such as tuna, salmon or swordfish.  There is nothing wrong with sticking with custom and pouring a white with your fish — in many cases, this will be the safer play — but at least now you’ll be able to do so knowing why the rule is as it is, and knowing that a walk on the wild side is just an Oregon Pinot away.
P.S.  There’s still time to vote on the first ever PnP poll— I’m starting to feel better, so I’ll be popping the cork of whichever bottle YOU pick soon!  Vote now!



2 responses

18 08 2012

Really useful piece Tips & Tricks: Red Wine with Fish? pop & pour. Keep publishing!



18 08 2012

Thanks a lot!


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