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On Drinking Red Wine

On drinking red with with seafood

Matthew Kudry 


Aboard the Orient Express in 1963’s From Russia with Love, James Bond, his female companion, and an assassin named Donald Grant posing as an MI6 operative sit down for dinner. They all order the grilled sole, with which Bond requests a bottle of Taittinger Comtes des Champagne; Grant orders a glass of Chianti. Later, when Grant is holding Bond at gunpoint, Bond delivers this line: “Red wine with fish. Now that should have told me something.” The man was clearly an impostor: any member of British society would know it’s a deadly faux-pas to drink red with one’s fish.

This rule of etiquette is so deep-seated that even my mother, who doesn’t drink wine, knows it. And on a commonsense level it works—the delicate texture and mild flavor of fish would seem to make it the preserve only of white wine. Luckily, we live in a time where it’s all right to distrust conventional wisdom. After all, there are lots of different red wines out there and almost infinite ways of combining ingredients, so sooner or later a red wine is going to work with a seafood dish. Making a smart pairing just involves a consideration of the flavors and textures of each. (And no, the answer is not always “a light red.”)

But first let’s admit to ourselves that there are times when it’s almost definitely not going to work:

Fluke crudo with citrus, pickled things, or herbs and such. Variations on this dish have been making the rounds in New York, and they do not want red wine near them. The bright flavors, the mildness of the fish, and the overall paucity of fat makes this a job for white wine only. Raw oysters with any kind of typical accompaniment. Definitely Chablis-Champagne- Riesling territory, but with the right oyster and mignonette, something light like a Régnié or a Spätburgunder or a Loire Valley vin de soif might work to access the iodiney, mineral flavors of those lil’ guys. Fish and chips. Not a place for wine. Beer only!


Getting closer:

Grilled mackerel with a raw tomato and herb salad. Perfection for Riesling. Just beautiful. But if you insist, a 2016 Juliénas would also perform very well. A semi-carbonic Pinot noir would be lovely too, and so, probably, would a nice fruit-forward Mencía. The fish is grilled here, and it’s also an oily fish, so there’s a fair amount of texture for the fine tannins in the wine to link up with. Also the fresh red berry fruits in the wine meet up nicely with the freshness of the garnish.


Now you’re talking:

Roasted black bass (skin still on) with hen of the woods mushrooms and potatoes. I just made that up and it sounds delicious, and if this dish were in front of me I’d be reaching for some Dauvissat to drink with it. But we’re drinking red, and we can actually choose something pretty complex with this.The fish is roasted, plus it’s gained in flavor, texture, and fat from the skin still being there, which invite the tannins and acidity of red wines; plus you have the meaty, savory mushrooms to play off of and the satisfying texture of the potatoes to complement the wine. A red Burgundy with some age would be great. So would an older Bandol. Certain Barolos—finely textured ones made by quality-focused, traditional houses—would also find this pairing flattering. Even a well-cellared Bordeaux would do well here.


Now this is just cheating:

Monkfish roasted with bacon-wrapped sunchokes in a red wine sauce. I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain why a red wine would work here, but... 1. Monkfish is about three base-pair mutations away from being beef, 2. the sunchokes are wrapped in bacon, and 3. there’s actual red wine in the dish. Any of the red wines mentioned for the previous dish would work, and, who knows, maybe ones that are even heartier, like some California Syrahs and Cabernets.


So basically, don’t go for a red wine unless the fish you’re about to eat has been cooked at least a little. Techniques like searing and roasting will produce rougher textures and flavors that red wines like to be around; poaching, on the other hand, makes for more delicacy and should steer you towards white (unless the garnish takes you back to red). Consider the accompaniment for the fish: is it fresh and raw? cooked gently? not manipulated much? This probably means you should go for a younger red that displays fresh fruit characteristics. When they’re cooked more and take on deeper flavors, then they can partner with bigger, more complex reds.


Or, you know, just drink what you want and stop worrying about it so much.