SOLE SEARCHING – pairing wine with fish

No subject causes diners so much angst, or wine writers so many headaches, as the pairing of wine and food.

There are three schools of thought on wine and food pairings. There are the people who say “drink what you like to drink” and I have some sympathy with this view. The second school follows the ‘rules’ developed by wine writers over many years which lay down specific matches – red wine with red meat, white wine with fish. Unfortunately by the late-20th century these rules had become set in stone, offering no solution to a diner seeking wines to complement the vibrant international cuisine rapidly becoming commonplace in restaurants and homes. The third school, to which on balance I belong, takes pains to find elemental matches while, at the same time, stressing that there are no perfect pairings and few imperfect ones, or in a nutshell “anything goes, but some things go better than others”.
The emergence of ethnic and that much abused word, ‘fusion’, cooking liberated wine writers from having to expound the conventional wisdom and caused them to focus instead on the food on the plate. At the same time the new availability of hitherto ‘undiscovered’ or neglected varietals presented further oportunities to re-write the canon. Nevertheless, we cannot discount entirely the old truisms. White wine is undoubtedly the perfect foil for white fish and it would be a brave wine or food writer indeed who would challenge the classic pairing of wild salmon and Chablis.
The first rule, if there is a rule, must be ‘look to the region’ and a brief scan of a topographical map of France will reveal that the upper reaches of many of that nation’s most notable salmon rivers run either through the Burgundy region or close to its fringes. Go to the Vendee or to the Charente Maritime and suss out what the locals are drinking with their oysters and you’ll find it’s invariably Muscadet, made a mere thirty or so miles inland around the lower reaches of the Loire. It applies in the New World too. Although New Zealanders are far less zealous about ‘what they drink with what’, the Taupo fisherman, celebrating the landing of a monster trout, invariably wolfs the monster down accompanied by a glass or three of Sauvignon Blanc.
Here’s the next clue – acidity. After years of experimentation I’ve come to the conclusion that wines with a high acidity level suit fish, simply cooked, to perfection. And before anyone writes in to say “that’s so obvious” I’ll agree, yes it is. But before I came to these conclusions I went down many a false trail – New World Chardonnay and Riesling to name but two. Okay, so why don’t we drink Muscadet, better still Gros Plant – wine’s equivalent of battery acid – with everything? There are two reasons: the first being that these are not terribly satisfying wines in their own right. More important is that super-sharp acidity has its own natural counterbalance – salt. Which is why Muscadet goes so well with oysters, Fino Sherry with anchovies and Vino Verde with sardines. Reduce or take away the salt factor and lean, austere, high in acid wines taste… lean, austere, high in acid.
So cool climate Chardonnay, not over-oaked, with your wild salmon – I won’t eat farmed salmon anyway so I’m not going to comment further. Although Pinot Noir from one of the less serious appelations can work if you’d prefer to drink red – the Burgundian thing again! And a good Sancerre, perhaps, with your unsullied cod, haddock, hake or black sole. Lovely. But let’s stress again the lack of dogma and say if you like to play with Pinot Grigio or Gavi, fine.
Add a sauce, the kaleidoscope gets shaken up and the picture changes. Although to me anyone who puts more than a plain hollandaise with salmon, or a beurre blanc with a few strands of fennel and the odd shrimp with a fine hunk of white fish, is nothing short of a vandal. Alsace Riesling, ultimate all-purpose food wine, and, perhaps, that fine grape Gruner Veltliner become possibilities. The Sauvignon can be New World. Or you could go for broke and drink one of the more full-bodied Champagnes.
Mackerel always presents me with a problem. Fresh caught, I love this fish. But I love it most in summer accompanied by a puree of beetroot and horseradish or wasabi; or by a sauce made from my own gooseberries, a dessert variety, not too tart. Provocative stuff when it comes to matching; and the answer is… oak! Here’s where New World Chardonnay starts to do it for me. Not the currently fashionable unoaked ones but the big old traddies. Hunter Valley Semillons work fine too. Smoked food can do weird things to wine. Nevertheless, for me, smoked Irish salmon (note the wording) and Alsace Pinot Blanc are food and drink’s equivalent of Rodgers and Hart.
I love fish (and shellfish) cooked in Asian styles – Goan curries for example, Thai ways with prawns – chili, lemongras, galangal, palm sugar coatings; or the crab or sea bass baked with ginger and scallions that the Chinese do so well. With onion-heavy curries tannins help counteract the richness suggesting, against all the odds, Cabernet Sauvignon. Any sweetness in the food, I counterbalance with big, soft rounded flavours – Semillon, Viognier or Gruner Veltliner perhaps in whites and Merlot, Grenache or Zinfandel in reds.
Scientists say the tongue’s taste receptors can detect five aspects of flavour: sweetness, sourness, salinity and bitterness, plus the umami, best described perhaps as a kind of ‘feel good factor’. Similarly, when seeking wine to go with Asian food I like to separate the food into its components. Chilli, ginger and coriander in particular, are hard to deal with. Zinfandel used to be my preference but latterly I’ve come to believe that Riesling is your only man with Thai food, particularly fish dishes.
Chinese food, goes well with Gewürztraminer, pundits tell you and the match of the aforsaid baked sea bass and a decent Alasce Gewurz (and there are few bad ones) is one made in heaven. However, not everyone appreciates this highly spiced and perfumed grape and as alternatives I would suggest maybe a Viognier, Rousanne or Marsanne.

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