Friday, October 23, 2009

Wine Pairing Theory - Or how to serve red wine with fish...

A quick history of pairing theory…

One of the oldest myths about food pairing is white wine with fish, red wine with meat; I say myth, because it’s the easy way out and simply isn’t true. A more modern philosophy among foodies has evolved in recent years which strives to match the styles of wines with the weight of the food that is the body of the dish or “Paired Weight Theory”.  Thus light body wines go with light bodied foods, heavy body wines with heavy bodied foods.  (There is also a rogue camp of foodies who believe that any dish can be made to match any wine, think steak and White Zinfandel, but we’ll save that discussion for another day, or read any book by wine consultant Tim Hanni). The key to working with the Paired Weight Theory is broadly understanding how different varietals are classified and of course having a good enough sense of the dish you’re making’s eventual “weight”

In general, most whites wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier should be classified on the light side of the scale, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese (Chianti in Italy) and French Beaujolais are generally medium bodied and reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah, are full bodied and should be considered heavy.  A key factor which plays into this classification this is the body of the wine. Body takes into consideration viscosity (including alcohol content) texture, (silkiness, chewiness, meatiness,) and saturation.
So first you must consider how the food is being prepared.  Are you grilling, roasting or frying?  Is your chicken being prepared with a lemon sauce or is it a full bodied Chicken Cacciatore?  Each of these preparations would call for a different style of wine.
To balance the textures, compare the elements of your food with the elements of your wine.  As an example, a lightly grilled halibut steak seems a good match for a nice light Chardonnay, but if you add a squeeze of lemon, the sweet fruit in the Chardonnay is going to fight with the lemon, making the wine bitter.  A better pair would be a Sauvignon Blanc because of its higher acid.  Conversely, putting a cream sauce over that halibut would make it a perfect Chardonnay choice.

Keep this in mind:  For every bite…you don’t want the wine to fight!

  • Sweet foods need a sweeter wine; otherwise the palate cannot perceive the sweetness of the wine, causing it to taste bitter or tart.
  • Sour or acidic foods need a wine with more acidity, or the wine will seem flat and dull.
  • Salty foods and acid work well together, as the acid in the wine helps keep the salt in check.
  • Bitter and astringent foods would accentuate the bitterness of a wine, so look for wines that are full flavored and fruity.

A couple of other things to think about:

  1. Quality – The better the wine, the better it will pair with a wider variety of foods and styles.  The flaws in lesser bottles of wine will jump up and down on your palate when served with any ingredient that is not in perfect harmony with the varietal.
  2. Winemaker Style Is that Chardonnay overly oaked or is it more fruit forward?  Pinot Noirs can run from very rich and fruity, to mushroomy, earthy and lean.  It’s easier to change your foods preparation then it is to change a winemaker’s style of winemaking.  But, with tasting and comparing, you can also find a winemaker’s style that you like, and that works well with the foods you like to eat.
  3. Personal Preference - What you like is what you like.  No one is going to be able to convince you, nor should they, that there is only one wine to go with any particular food.

So when you think fish and you’re mind thinks white, remember to think of the texture and weight of what you are serving.  By changing herbs, spices and cooking styles, you can change a “white” wine dish into a red wine friendly dish.

LindySez - SoSousMe- I like red wine and here are my top 5 favorite red wine with fish dishes:


1. Seared Ahi and a Cabernet Sauvignon

Let’s start with Seared Ahi.  Ahi actually works more like a steak than fish.  Most of the time it’s served rare (and rightly so); that makes it even more steak-like.

Simple Seared Ahi

Serves 4
  • 4 fresh Ahi tuna steaks (get the best quality you can)
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

  1. Rub the tuna with the oil. Season well with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy pan over high heat; throw the tuna in the pan and sear it for just a few minutes on each side. You want the middle to be rare. (If you insist on cooking it through, just make sure you don’t overcook it).
  2. Per Serving: 174 Calories; 4g Fat (1g Sat, 2g Mono, 1g Poly); 33g Protein; trace Carbohydrate; trace Dietary Fiber; 64mg Cholesterol; 319mg Sodium.
Why it works: Cabernet’s from California will generally have higher tannins, a heavier mouth feel and will compliment the texture of the Ahi just as they would a steak.  The strong presence of black fruits (think blackberry, cassis and blueberry) enhance the meat mouth feel of the Ahi and compliments the simple salt and pepper seasoning.

2. Cioppino and Zinfandel

Cioppino is a tomato-based seafood stew that was created by Italian fishermen in San Francisco around the turn of the century.  While today, Dungeness crab is considered a required ingredient, you should use whatever fish you like; and use what is fresh.  No mater what seafood you use, it’s the tomato base that ties this stew to Zinfandel.

Lindy’s Cioppino

Serves 6
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 leek, cleaned, cut in half and then thinly sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fennel
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 bay leaf
  • 2 cups crushed tomatoes with juice
  • 1 cup bottled clam juice
  • 1 cup dry white wine, (a Sauvignon Blanc works well here)
  • Large pinch red pepper flakes
  • Pinch of saffron threads
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 12 whole mussels or clams (or splurge and use both) cleaned
  • 12 whole raw medium shrimp, shelled and deveined, tails left on
  • 1/2 pound bay scallops
  • 1 Dungeness crab, cleaned, broken into pieces and cracked or lobster cut into pieces, or other crab if you have a local favorite
  • 1 pound snapper, halibut, cod or other white fish, cut into bite sized pieces
  • Minced parsley

  1. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the oil; add the celery, onion, garlic, leek, fennel, thyme and bay leaf. Saute 5 minutes.
  2. Add the wine and reduce by half (about 3 minutes); add the tomatoes, clam juice, saffron, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Simmer on medium-low heat for 20 minutes.
  3. Add the mussels or clams (or both); remove them to a bowl as they open. This keeps them from overcooking. Discard any shellfish that does not open.
  4. Add the rest of the seafood and cook until the shrimp is pink, scallops are opaque, crab is hot and the fish is cooked. Divide the shellfish between 6 heated bowls; ladle the stew over; top with parsley and serve with a good garlic bread. and a nice bottle of Zinfandel or Chianti. (In Italy many fish stews are served over a garlic crostini, you can do that too with this if you so desire).
  5. Per Serving: 309 Calories; 12g Fat (2g Sat, 7g Mono, 2g Poly); 32g Protein; 13g Carbohydrate; 2g Dietary Fiber; 79mg Cholesterol; 654mg Sodium.
Why it works: Zinfandel’s flavor profile is loaded with red and black fruits and sweet and savory spice notes like cinnamon and white pepper.  The tomato based Cioppino is high in acid and the slight sweetness and higher alcohol of the Zin soothe one another into a mellow flavor.

3. Swordfish and a “Super Tuscan”

Swordfish is a dense fish with a firm texture.  It can be grilled, fried, broiled or baked.  Serving it with an olive tapenade makes it the perfect choice to go with a nice Super Tuscan*. Together, the texture of the fish and the savory toppings puts this dish into the heavy bodied category.

Baked Swordfish with Olive Relish

Serves 4

  • 1/3 cup green olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/3 cup kalamata or black oil cured olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/4 cup roasted red pepper, chopped (you can do these yourself or you can use bottled, I use bottled)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
  • 2 anchovies, drained and minced (this really gives a good flavor to the relish, so try to use them and don’t go yuck)
  • 2 teaspoons capers, drained
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 4 (6-ounce) swordfish steaks


  1. Combine the olives, peppers, parsley, anchovies, capers, vinegar and garlic in a small bowl. Stir in 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, allow to sit for a while to let the flavors blend, 1 hour would be great. ( LindySez Party Tip: Make this the day before and let it sit overnight covered in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.)
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush the swordfish on both sides with olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Heat an oven proof skillet over medium high heat until hot; add the fish and sear on both sides until brown; then pop the pan in the oven to finish the cooking process; cook until done, about 10 minutes more.
  3. Put the fish on a warm plate, top with the relish.
  4. Per Serving: 338 Calories; 20g Fat (3g Sat, 9g Mono, 2g Poly); 34g Protein; 3g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 68mg Cholesterol; 653mg Sodium.
Why it works: Think of the ingredients in this recipe independently and you have many of the most popular toppings for pizza; garlic, olives, anchovies and red pepper.  If this dish included tomatoes (it does not) a Chianti or Sangiovese would be a great pairing partner.  However, the red peppers are less acidic and sweeter than tomatoes; therefore, the addition of Cabernet in the Super Tuscan blend smooths out the normal acidity of Sangiovese grapes by adding some needed tannins and concentrated black fruit.  The density of the swordfish matches the texture of most red meat.
*Super Tuscans  burst onto the scene in Chianti in 1975 with the introduction of Tignanello (80% Sangiovese and 20% cabernet).  The Piero Antinori of the legendary Antinori wine making tradition was trying to offer a new way to make Sangiovese interesting to the world again after it had faded due to dismal production and abysmal cheap wines for almost 3 decades.  The result has helped to redefine Chianti and upgrade production on the Sangiovese grape.  Antinori was, at first, scorned by the DOC (the controlling authority in Italy) and was forced to label Tignanello as a lowly Vin di Tavolo (table wine).  Today, Tignanello and other Super tuscans carry the IGT classification (indicazione geografica tipica).

4. Halibut and Merlot

Halibut is a mild flavored, medium textured fish.  This combination works well with a Merlot, the fennel and orange zest bringing out the fruit Merlot is known for.

Halibut with Herbs and Fennel Tomato Sauce

Serves 4
  • 4 (4 – 6 ounce) halibut steaks or fillets
  • 1 1/3 tablespoons marjoram, minced
  • 1 1/3 tablespoons thyme, minced
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest (yellow part only, no white pith)
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest (ditto above, only the orange part)
  • 1 fennel bulb, sliced
  • 1 cup canned tomatoes, with juice
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup chopped kalamata olive
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, or as needed
  • 2 tablespoons basil leaves, chiffonade
  • 2 tablespoons minced parsley

  1. In a small bowl, combine the herbs and the zests. Season the fish with salt and pepper, then spread the minced herbs on one side. Set-aside.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saute pan. Add the fennel and saute until the fennel starts to brown on the edges, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the wine is reduced by 1/2. Add the tomatoes along with their juice; using your spoon mash them slightly. Simmer over medium high heat until reduced by 1/2. Reduce heat to medium low; add the olives and capers and simmer until the sauce is very thick.
  3. Heat the remaining oil in a skillet; when hot, add the fish herb side down. Cook about 3 minutes; then turn. Add a little more oil, if necessary; and cook until the fish is just cooked through. Do not overcook the fish. (This is the biggest mistake people make when cooking fish, they over cook it, and then it becomes all dry and yucky. If you cook it until it “flakes easily with a fork” you’ve overcooked it. Keep it moist in the center, cooking only until it’s opaque.)
  4. Place the fennel mixture onto a warmed plate, top with fish and sprinkle basil and parsley over.
  5. Per Serving: 394 Calories; 15g Fat (1g Sat, 6g Mono, 2g Poly); 37g Protein; 8g Carbohydrate; 3g Dietary Fiber; 54mg Cholesterol; 712mg Sodium.

Why it works: Merlot is generally softer and silkier than Cabernet Sauvignon.  Its flavor profile is generally red fruit driven with an undertone of black fruit.  Its characteristic soft tannins work well smoothing out the slightly acidic tomato sauce.

5. Salmon and Pinot Noir

A classic combination.  Add bacon and it’s a no brainer.

Salmon with Lentils and Bacon

Serves 4
  • 1 cup lentils, rinsed
  • 1 medium onion, minced (about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 (2-inch long) orange peel strips (orange part only, no white pith)
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 4 (6-ounce) salmon steaks or fillets ( use wild caught salmon if at all possible; it’s got better taste, better texture, it’s good for YOU and it’s good for the environment)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup chopped chives or green onion tops (try the chives, they really are different than green onion tops)
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon or 2 teaspoons dried

  1. Combine the lentils, onion, carrot, orange peel and water in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup cooking liquid; discard the orange peel. Return the lentils to the pan; season with salt and pepper. (LindySez Party Tip: Can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and chill the lentils and reserved cooking liquid separately.)
  2. While the lentils cook fry the bacon until crisp. Remove, drain and chop into pieces. (Hint: I like to have uniform pieces of bacon in my dish, so I slice the bacon first into uniform pieces and then fry them.)
  3. Place a frying pan over medium heat. Add a small amount of oil; heat until shimmering. Season the fish with salt and pepper and place in the frying pan. Cook until just opaque, turning once. (LindySez: Party Tip- to really impress…if using salmon steaks, cut out the center bone and separate each half. Starting at the thickest part; roll the salmon to form a circle; tie with kitchen string. After cooking, remove the string and you have a nifty little salmon circle.)
  4. Meanwhile, add enough reserved cooking liquid to the lentils to moisten them; mix in the cream, parsley, chives and tarragon; bring to a simmer. Add the bacon. Spoon lentils onto warmed plates; top with the salmon and serve.
  5. Per Serving: 423 Calories; 10g Fat (3g Sat, 3g Mono, 3g Poly); 49g Protein; 34g Carbohydrate; 16g Dietary Fiber; 102mg Cholesterol; 135mg Sodium.
Why it works: There is probably no more famous food and wine pair than Salmon and Pinot Noir; think of them as the Abbott and Costello of food and wine.  They work on most all the levels of pairing theory: ingredients from common geography (Oregon, Washington, North Coast CA) and body weight (both medium). The typical flavor profile of Pinot Noir is combination of red fruits (cherry, cranberry and raspberry), black fruits (black cherry and plum); and a wonderful earthiness that ranges from moist earth and mushrooms (typical in red burgundies from France); to a softer more elegant style found in the Pinots from the New World (California, Oregon and Washington, as well as New Zealand).

LindySez - Now do your heart good -  eat some fish, and enjoy the health properties found in it as well as in red wine!

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