Red or white with fish: reply to a reader

A reader asked: ‘why do you think there is a general notion that fish MUST be with white?’

That is a great question (but a tough one):

I’d like to think that it is an easy formula that people like to use without thinking too much about it, but some of my closest taster friends disagree with some of my fish and wine parings. While I firmly believe that there are many fish that usually need white, I also think that there are many fish that usually need red. But I think that more than anything, it depends on the way any fish is prepared.

The fish I think usually go with red are those that have bitterness (and also tend to be fatty fish) like Mackerel, salmon, tuna…. These fish are often considered the ‘steaks of the sea’. So this means that yes, I drink red with sushi (I can hear some of my Japanese friends cringing!).

The fish that usually go with white are all of the white fish (fresh cod, halibut, sole etc) and also most crustaceans (shrimp, lobster, clams etc).

Preparation plays, I think,  the ultimate role in determining the wine with any dish. You can turn any of those ‘white wine fish’ into ‘red wine fish’ if you prepare them with a lot of bitterness: with a lot of herbs, with a lot of black pepper, very grilled, with lots of garlic and tomato sauce….  All of those kinds of preparations (bitter) need the tannins and structure of red wines to balance out the bitterness.

Then of course, there are some white wines that have red-wine structures (almost as if they were tannic and they can sometimes make it with the ‘red wine fish’ because of their ‘topographical relief’ (by that I mean energy that resembles tannins that might come from pepper)…

My answer may provoke more questions than the one I wanted to answer.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. julia says:

    thanks for the great response!
    i can’t wait to say to a fellow diner:
    ‘dude, it’s the steak of the sea – white wine, are you crazy?’

    knowledge is so emancipating. thank you saltpepperlime!

  2. Catherine says:

    Yah Thanks ! I feel so sophisicated now when I ask the waiter which RED wine he recommends with the fish…. (I haven’t quite got to the point though where I pick the wine entirely on my own.)

  3. Engammare says:

    White in 99% of the cases. But which white? That is the question!
    Muscadet, Sauvignon…, are excellent with oysters, but not good at all with a fish “en sauce”.
    A Gewurtztraminer (Alsace) is a top class wine, but not good with fish (except some ones!)

    So, we cannot resume the question: “white or red”, with “fish” : it depends on
    – which fish, and how it is cooked? (with cream? grilled? etc)
    – which wine? “white” is much too broad.

    And if you drink a red wine : Saumur Champigny, Chinon, some wines from Burgundy, can be O.K., but a Bordeaux, a Côtes du Rhone… definitely not.

  4. saltpepperlime says:

    It appears that we agree on the essential: which is whatever wine you choose to go with any dish will depend on the preparation of that dish.

    My point of bringing up this issue is that I think WAY too many people feel stuck with the saying ‘white with fish’.

    I firmly believe that many fish preparations require red to find complete harmony of flavors and aromatics.

    Let us take, for example, scallops (technically a crustacean). If prepared sautéed with a cream sauce, definitely requires a white. I would say a white that has some creaminess to it like a Chardonnay with some wood aging.
    That same scallop prepared Provencal styled with tomatoes, and garlic with parsley on a bowl of pasta for instance, I would say requires a southern red with enough tannin to stand up the bitterness of tomato- parsley combo.
    I also came up with some fun recipes for Port wine (red) to go with fish that you can see here and here.

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