What to drink with fish


Ben Canaider considers the rules, and how best to break them.

Once, in simpler times, the world had rules: red wine with red meat, white wine with white. Thank goodness all that has changed—or so the middle-aged hipsters say. Yet in today’s permissive, anything-goes society, nagging, even important questions remain: what should you drink with seafood—or ‘fish’, as past generations called it?

Astonishingly, I’m asked this question more than anything else in what passes for my professional life. Indeed, I’ve been asked it enough over the years to now have two definitive answers. One’s a short answer that I give to people at luncheon parties, and one’s a long answer that I type out on my qwerty keyboard when I’m getting paid by the word.

The short answer?

Be Spanish.

That’s it. Be Spanish.

The long answer? Okay, here we go. There are three areas of interest when it comes to making fish and wine (any coloured wine) go together. The first one applies to the fish, the second one to the chef, and the third to the sommelier.

The fish

Octopus. Sardines. Oysters. Whiting. Salmon. Trout. Kingfish. Barramundi. Black Kingfish, or Cobia as it’s properly known (which is the latest “it” fish, by the way). All the different species and types. Crustaceans, cephalopods, pelagics, bivalves… Is it a clean, lean fish or an oily one? Is the flesh dense or delicate? Without even considering how any seafood might be prepared or cooked, the underlying features of the creature on the plate have to be carefully considered before you start thinking of which wine to put beside it.

The most delicate fish demand the ultimate straight-from-the-sea freshness (whiting or garfish, for instance) and so are perfect partners for more pert and youthful white wines. Riesling, semillon, albarhino, semillon/sauvignon blanc blends, or sauvignon blanc sans adulteration. At the other end of the spectrum, Spanish mackerel—with its strong and robust taste and texture—demands fuller flavoured whites and even red wines that haven’t been made with evident oak. A young and uncomplicated tempranillo, for instance. Heavier, more oily pink fish, such as salmon, can head to a different part of the wine list, too. Perhaps a more heavily worked chardonnay or rosé?

It’s at this point, however, that the matrix of fish, kitchen and sommelier starts to emerge—and to complicate things—in a fascinating way.

Take the abovementioned suggestion of salmon. Smoked, it speaks freely to riesling and sparkling white wines; sashimi-ed, it is at home with a range of pert, young whites, not too mention sake. Steamed, roasted or pan-fried, it crosses over into pinot territory.

Yet before we examine further how cooking technique can sway the fish/wine conundrum, it’s worth remembering a few well-worn, time-honoured fish-and-wine matches that are more or less immutable: oysters naturale go with chablis; caviar with champagne; lobster with white burgundy; boiled prawns with Fino sherry; smoked trout with riesling; and bouillabaisse with rosé.

The chef

Cooking methods and key flavouring agents can powerfully free fish from white wine’s bond, and, quite frankly, I’m staggered at how infrequently these are used to help move fish into red wine territory.

Roasting fish—think monkfish, barramundi, salmon—and serving it with the sort of vegetables you’d normally associate with roasted red meats is a straightforward manoeuvre towards red wine. Key flavouring agents on said fish during the roasting process also helps. Smoked paprika is the wonder powder here. It brings a depth of flavour and instant red wine friendliness to any densely fleshed fish you roast. Cohabitants in the roasting process can also bend fish towards all sorts of red wines. Slices of chorizo makes everything—including fish—tempranillo’s partner, for instance. Other flavourings like star anise, soy, Szechuan pepper, fish sauce, and chilli paste can also make pan-fried fish a partner for the emerging style of South Australian Grenache—with its lifted aromatics, and its lighter fruit-weight.

The sommelier

Speaking of wine weight, this is where your team of international sommeliers really start to earn their pay. Any fish dish is always going to struggle with a heavy, oaky, tannic red wine that’s designed to win wine shows rather than please diners’ palates. Red wines with lighter weight and a gentler mouthfeel are a better bet for fish of all descriptions. Pinot noir’s a good bet; so is grenache of the new school; tempranillo that’s young and fruit-driven, but still on the savoury side; dolcetto; shiraz that’s in the syrah mold; and sangiovese.

Gamay, or Beaujolais, is another wonder red for fish. The key things to remember when matching red or rosé wines well to fish relate to acidity, fruitiness, and oak. Acid needs to be more evident than not in order to keep the red wine upright and lean; fruit flavour needs to be clean and long, to further promote freshness on the palate; and oak needs to be somewhere else—anywhere else, but not in the wine. Certainly in chardonnay of the white Burgundy style, and in pinot noir where French oak can act as an attractive rather than repellent aftershave, oak can play the role of seasoning, but the winemaker has to have used it so sparingly that it’s barely noticeable.

Finally: Spain. Think about the red wines of Spain and that country’s fish dishes cooked in oil, garlic, paprika (or pimento powder), chorizo … It makes sense.

The Spanish—and the French and Italians— drink a lot of rosé, too. And for the six warmer months of the Australian year, with all our readily available seafood, rosé is surely your best option to make the wine list
and menu more varied and dynamic.

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