Most wine enthusiasts can follow at least the beginner’s guide to wine pairing: red wine for red meat, white wine with white meat. By principle, this would lead you to suggest that fish is best consumed with white wine, right? Not necessarily! While it is true that some fish dishes pair expertly with a nice Chardonnay, you may be surprised to learn that other fish offerings would do much better with a deep Pinot Noir. Check it out.
Before you start trying to pair your dinner, first stop and think about what type of fish you ordered. Certainly, you understand that a salmon steak is far from the same thing as an ocean scallop, right? So it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that not all seafood pairs the same. For the majority of seafood, pairing wine comes down to the type of fish you’re having and what its qualities are. Start by breaking fish entrées into the following categories (per Wine Folly):
- Light & Flakey- Perhaps the most popular options, fish in this category are typically thin filets with a mild flavor. Examples include:
- Sea Bass
- Medium & Flakey- Denoted by a larger body and thicker flakes, these fillets are thicker and offer more flavor. Cod and catfish are prime examples of this category, but other popular choices include:
- Strong Flavored- Typically, fish in this category cause people to wrinkle their noses. They tend to be, “love it or hate it” fish and offer strong, salty flavors. Fish in this category include:
- Rich & Meaty- If the word “steak” attaches to your fish, it falls into this category. The fish steaks will be thick, hardy, and substantial in texture. Examples include:
Once you’ve established what you’re eating, it’s time to think about what you’re drinking. As a general rule of thumb, order a white wine. It’s really hard to go wrong and if you’re feeling unsure, any white wine will be safe. But if you’re feeling adventurous…
Light & Flakey fish have such a delicate flavor that scream for a delicate wine. Something with a citrus, zesty twist will serve you best. It’s important not to overpower the flavor of the fish, so consider sticking to a dry Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or Sauvignon Blanc. Up for something new? Try a sparkling wine, including the Spanish sparkling red known as Cava, for an unexpected twist!
Medium Flakey fish have a bit more flavor to stand on and can tolerate a wine with a little more body. Treating yourself to anything that is aged in oak (ask your wine steward) is sure to please the palate. Dry Riesling can be a new experience with a medium fish, though the timeless classics of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris will also work well.
Rich & Meaty fish are the curveball to the white wine rule. It’s no surprise that red wine lovers tend to favor these hearty fish, as they’re about the only thing in the sea that can balance the body and tannins found in red wines. Feel free to try a Rose, white Pinot Noir, or even a Lambrusco with these fish. Of course, a champagne or Chardonnay will also serve just fine.
Strongly Flavored fish have their own fan following, and if you’re among them, finding a wine to complement those strong odors and flavors can seem like a tall order. You’ll find many red wines that work well, including Pinot Noir, Cava, and Lambrusco. Whites that are up for the challenge include a dry Riesling and Champagne.
A final curveball! Just as you’ve got the fish type figured out and researched how to pair it, here we come to tell you there is yet one more thing to consider. Preparation style, including sauce choices, can completely change how to pair your fish. A good rule of thumb is, “the darker the sauce, the darker the wine.” Here’s another quick cheat sheet to help clear it up.
Zesty Sauces- Light white wines with citrus notes
Sweet (Teriyaki style) Sauces- The sweeter the sauce- the sweeter the wine. Try to up the ante by a notch or two.
Spicy Sauces- If you taste chili powder, reach for the Riesling.
Curry Sauces- Think sweet. Wines like Riesling or Moscato work best.
Savory Sauces- Smell basil, parsley, dill or capers? This is the perfect time to order a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
Smoked Meat- These meats tend to be a bit drier, and benefit greatly from a sparkling wine.