Finding the best wine for seafood is not only delightful for your palate, it’s easier than you might think. There are two things to consider when pairing seafood and wine. One is the weight and texture of the fish, and the other is the type of sauce or seasonings used in the preparation. With both of these, it’s often best to match characteristics. A light, delicate fish calls for a lighter style of wine, whereas a heartier filet calls for a wine with more body and complex flavors. Here are a few examples.
FISH STYLE: White, lean and flaky
Think sea bass, sole and tilapia. For the flaky, melt-in-your-mouth texture and mild flavors of more delicate fish dishes, opt for a wine that shares many of those same qualities. A light, crisp wine with lively acidity will highlight and support those flavors. Fine examples include New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Albarino, Austrian Gruner Veltliner and dry German Riesling.
FISH STYLE: White, medium-firm
Classic examples of this category include cod, halibut and mahi mahi, which are firmer in texture and often thicker in cut. While a filet that carries a bit more heft will pair beautifully with a wine that follows suit, there is some wiggle room here. Depending on the preparation, the wines listed above may indeed work well with these options. But in general, it’s a fine idea to reach for rounder, richer varieties like Semillon, Viognier or Alsatian Pinot Blanc. Chablis and un-oaked California Chardonnays will get the job done too. Certain white blends are another terrific go-to, like white Cotes-du-Rhone or Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or Rhone-style white blends from California’s Central Coast.
FISH STYLE: Meaty steaks
Salmon, tuna and swordfish are prime examples. With heartier filets that carry intense flavors, turn to wines that deliver rich, round textures and substantial flavors of their own. Vouvray, white Burgundy and oaked California Chardonnay will all stand up to these filets, as will a number of reds! Pinot Noir is a classic pairing with salmon and will work nicely with the others. Additional options include Beaujolais, Merlot and lighter Grenache or Grenache-based wines like Cotes-du-Rhone and Sardinian Cannonau.
SHELLFISH: Shrimp, clams, scallops, oysters
With the briny, sweet quality of most shellfish dishes, crisp is often the key! With many preparations, go with something zesty and vibrant, and if the wine also carries an impression of salinity or sea spray, so much the better. Excellent pairing suggestions include Albarino, Chablis, Muscadet and Fiano di Avellino from southern Italy. And let’s not forget one of the all-time great matches with this type of food—Champagne! This, along with other quality dry sparklers like Cava and Franciacorta, is an incredibly versatile food wine with lively acidity that matches beautifully with shellfish. Of course, if your meal is lobster drizzled with butter, an amazing choice is a rich, buttery California Chardonnay or opulent white Burgundy. Here again, the focus is on matching characteristics to achieve a satisfying, even decadent food and wine experience.
THE SAUCE: Why it matters
So far our focus has been on texture and weight, but seasonings and sauces are factors that can’t be ignored. In some cases such flavoring choices can become even more important than the type of fish itself. As with the lobster example, a buttery or creamy sauce will cry out for a heavier, creamier wine. If the sauce or seasonings are lighter and more herbal, Sauvignon Blanc and Gruner Veltliner are prime choices. Is the sauce based on a red fruit reduction? A Grenache, Pinot Noir or Beaujolais might be in order. If your preparation is spicy, then look for a wine that will balance that heat with a touch of residual sugar. Classic off-dry options include some Rieslings, certain Vouvrays and a number of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Not all of these will indicate their sweetness level on the label, so check the alcohol level. An abv of 9-11% typically indicates a medium sweet to off-dry wine. As for those New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, even 12-13% abv versions can have a trace of sweetness.
Pairing the right wine with the right food is one of life’s great pleasures. Follow these few guidelines, and you are well on your way to some amazing sensory experiences!