Red Wine with Fish

27 May 2011
Author: Jeannie Cho Lee


Twenty-two years ago, a good friend who is a food writer based in New York, David Rosengarten, published a book called Red Wine with Fish. The book, which was written together with wine consultant Joshua Wesson, never became an international best seller, but it raised a few eyebrows with its unorthodox approach to food and wine pairing. My copy of the book, now frayed at the edges with ear marked corners and my own scribbled handwriting on numerous pages, still makes me smile when I go back to it. I love the idea that the book was all about breaking “The Rules”. Rosengarten and Wesson wrote, “The Rules were the frightened reaction of an earlier age to the possibility of great uncertainty.” More than two decades later in Asia, that same statement is still valid. Serious foodies who are into wine seem to fall largely under two camps: the first camp believes in “The Rules” with an expanded vocabulary such as the colour coding of food and wine pairings. Some go so far as to simplify pairings by focusing mostly on colour – white or light coloured food with white wines and dark coloured dishes with darker coloured wines. This reductive approach easily allows all Asian dishes that are new to the food and wine pairing scene to be slotted into categories and creates “The Newly Expanded Rules”. The second camp takes a relativist approach and is more comfortable with uncertainty. This camp believes in changing the paradigm, dismantling “The Rules” and discussing pairings in terms of identifiable guiding principles rather than using an authoritarian approach. I have always been part of this camp and I have written at length about why I feel a new paradigm is necessary, especially when it comes to Asian food and wine pairing. Our dining culture – how we eat, how we enjoy food and what is defined as delicious – is different from the traditional approach and necessitates a new perspective. Most of us have now moved beyond the notion of white wine with fish, that is if we ever really believed in this tenet at all. We know from first-hand experience that red wine can and does match well with fish. Some fantastic pairings include toro (fatty tuna) sashimi dipped in soy sauce with a touch of wasabi, which is sublime with a 20-year old red Burgundy from a good domaine; Malaysian fish head curry is delicious with a slightly chilled Cote du Rhone. A surprisingly good match is steamed garoupa with soy sauce and spring onion and mature Bordeaux or Northern Rhone. A high quality Bordeaux red from the 1970s or older, has a completely different texture to a young Bordeaux and the softer tannins, silkier texture and mellow flavours marry very well with fish. Northern Rhone wines, such as the tannic, meaty Hermitage, can be a good partner with delicate fish. I enjoyed a pan-fried cod fish with a miso glaze with a 1982 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle several weeks ago and it was superb. While there are no rules for pairing red wine with fish, there are some guiding principles: opt for less tannic reds with lively acidity – these work better than very tannic, full bodied reds with low acidity; avoid fish with strong ‘fishy’ notes such as mackerel, sardines or anchovies which will bring out the metallic, astringent notes in red wine; add soy sauce-based seasoning or gravies which will enable the dish to pair better with red wine; add a touch of meat such as minced pork or bacon to the dish for an enhanced pairing. When I am cooking at home and we are having red wine, I will often throw in some mushrooms or small bits of chopped meat, almost as garnish, to a fish dish to enable it to pair better with the wine. Adding some of the red wine as a sauce or seasoning when cooking the fish is another easy way to ensure that the pairing will work well. When choosing a red wine to pair with a fish dish, consider the age of the wine, the level of tannins and acidity and the fruit character. The older the wine, the easier it will pair with fish dishes; the higher the tannins, whether they are from the grape variety itself or from oak barrel tannins, the more it will detract from the texture and flavours of the fish; the higher the acidity, the better the match – consider how well lemon, vinegar and other acidic ingredients work beautifully with fish; the fruit character and intensity of flavours of the wine work best when it echoes the intensity and texture of the fish. Sadly, after all of this pontificating about red wine with fish, the reality of our dining culture shows us that we would never just eat that one particular fish dish with red wine throughout an entire meal. Even the thought of such a meal is unappetising. We don’t repeat the same flavour combinations throughout the meal and that is the challenging and fun part of how we enjoy our food. Just remember, you don’t have to take a sip of wine with each mouthful, you can pick and choose the combinations and discover for yourself what works and what doesn’t. I am mindful of my very tolerant friends and family who have rightly commented, “You take this pairing thing way too seriously Jeannie. Good food and good wine go together no matter what they are!”


Reprinted with permission from South China Morning Post