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One of the oldest myths about food pairing is white wine with fish, red wine with meat; I say myth because it’s the easy way out and simply isn’t true. A more modern approach among foodies has evolved in recent years which strives to match the styles of wines with the weight of the food that is the body of the dish or “Paired Weight Theory”. The new way of thinking is light body wines go with light-bodied foods, heavy body wines go with heavy-bodied foods.
The key to working with the Paired Weight Theory is understanding how different varietals are classified and of course, having a good enough sense of the dish you’re making’s eventual “weight”.
In general, most whites wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Viognier should be classified on the light side of the scale, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese (Chianti in Italy) and French Beaujolais are generally medium-bodied and reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Syrah, are full-bodied and should be considered heavy. A key factor which plays into this classification this is the body of the wine. Body takes into consideration viscosity (including alcohol content) texture, (silkiness, chewiness, meatiness,) and saturation.
So first you must consider how the food is being prepared. Are you grilling, roasting, or frying? Is your chicken being prepared with a lemon sauce or is it a full-bodied Chicken Cacciatore? Each of these preparations would call for a different style of wine.
To balance the textures, compare the elements of your food with the elements of your wine. As an example, a lightly grilled halibut steak seems a good match for a nice light Chardonnay, but if you add a squeeze of lemon, the sweet fruit in the Chardonnay is going to fight with the lemon, making the wine bitter. A better pair would be a Sauvignon Blanc because of its higher acid. Conversely, putting a cream sauce over that halibut would make it a perfect Chardonnay choice.
So when you think fish and you’re mind thinks white, remember to think of the texture and weight of what you are serving. By changing herbs, spices, and cooking styles, you can change a “white” wine dish into a red wine-friendly dish.
I like red wine and here are some of my favorite red wine with fish dishes:
Let’s start with Ahi tuna. Ahi actually works more like a steak than fish. Most of the time it’s served rare (and rightly so); that makes it even more steak-like.
Why it works: Cabernet’s from California will generally have higher tannins, a heavier mouthfeel, and will complement the texture of the Ahi just as they would a steak. The strong presence of black fruits (think blackberry, cassis, and blueberry) enhances the meat mouthfeel of the Ahi and compliments the simple salt and pepper seasoning.
Cioppino is a tomato-based seafood stew that was created by Italian fishermen in San Francisco around the turn of the century. While today, Dungeness crab is considered a required ingredient, you should use whatever fish you like; and use what is fresh. No matter what seafood you use, it’s the tomato base that ties this stew to Zinfandel.
Why it works: Zinfandel’s flavor profile is loaded with red and black fruits and sweet and savory spice notes like cinnamon and white pepper. The tomato-based Cioppino is high in acid and the slight sweetness and higher alcohol of the Zin soothe one another into a mellow flavor.
Swordfish is a dense fish with a firm texture. It can be grilled, fried, broiled or baked. Serving it with an olive tapenade makes it the perfect choice to go with a nice Super Tuscan*. Together, the texture of the fish and the savory toppings puts this dish into the heavy-bodied category.
*Super Tuscans burst onto the scene in Chianti in 1975 with the introduction of Tignanello (80% Sangiovese and 20% Cabernet). The Piero Antinori of the legendary Antinori winemaking tradition was trying to offer a new way to make Sangiovese interesting to the world again after it had faded due to dismal production and abysmal cheap wines for almost 3 decades. The result has helped to redefine Chianti and upgrade production on the Sangiovese grape. Antinori was, at first, scorned by the DOC (the controlling authority in Italy) and was forced to label Tignanello as a lowly Vin di Tavola (table wine). Today, Tignanello and other Super Tuscans carry the IGT classification (indicazione geografica tipica).
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