Pairing Seafood with Red Wine

Pairing red wine and seafood is commonly considered a faux pas, but wine lovers argue that the combination works when executed correctly. Can it be done? We think so: just follow these simple guidelines.

Pairing Seafood with Red Wine

Pairing Seafood with Red Wine

Before pairing, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a lighter fish/seafood or a more meaty fish/seafood?
  • How will this be prepared, and how will that affect the flavor?
  • Will it be served with a sauce, relish, or other accompaniment?
  • What are the flavors of this accompaniment, and how acidic is it?
  • Are there any umami flavors in the dish?

Tip #1: Select lighter to medium wine styles

Not all red wines are created equal: bold Zinfandel, Syrah, or Priorat fall into a very different category than a light Pinot Noir or dry rosé. Remember this while selecting a red wine to pair with seafood. In general, aim for higher acidity and fruit and lower tannin levels.

Tip #2: Focus on the way the fish is prepared when pairing

The way the seafood is prepared will significantly affect the flavors of the dish: grilled salmon, for example, has a much stronger flavor than poached salmon.

The cooking method will then determine which wine best accompanies the dish. A poached salmon would welcome a lighter rosé, while grilled salmon could stand up to a heavier Oregon Pinot Noir.

Tip #3: Consider the sauce, relish, or other accompaniments

The herbs, spices, sauces, or relishes used to flavor the dish will also play a large role in pairing; in fact, these flavors are often more bold than the fish itself. For example, when pairing pan-fried snapper (or other white fish, such as sea bass) served with a relish of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, capers, and fresh cherry tomatoes, you might need to take the relish flavors into account more than the fish itself.

Tip #4: Avoid pairing tannins with acidity

Tannin and acidity clash on the palate and often create a metallic taste, which can pose a problem for many seafood dishes that are finished with a squeeze of lemon. Keep this in mind when pairing red wine with seafood: avoid lemon-based sauces, and choose wines with very low tannins. Also remember that even shallots or white wine-based sauces can create this acidic taste; avoid both if possible.

Tip #5: State the case for heavier reds when appropriate

Heavier seafood dishes and stews can withstand a more full-bodied red. Examples include a salmon BLT with herbed aioli, squid stew with chorizo and chickpeas, cioppino, or baked halibut with roasted tomatoes, smoked paprika, and fried garlic.

Tip #6: Don’t forget about umami

Umami is the delicious and savory flavor found in rich, fermented, or cured foods such as dried mushrooms, cooked tomatoes, smoked meats and fish, shellfish, and aged meats and cheeses. It also occurs when meat is grilled or seared: consider the flavor of a pan-seared filet verses the delicate flavors of a steak tartare, and attribute the rich and smoked flavor of the meat to umami. Umami is also the result of the “perfect” combination of flavors.

Think of umami as an “essence” (its name is a combination of the Japanese words for “delicious” and “essence”) that can vary when it comes to the actual flavors of the umami dish. For this reason, umami doesn’t pair with just one style of wine: in some cases, white wines are more applicable to umami foods; in others, red wines are more appropriate.

When pairing red wine with seafood, umami can play an important role. The umami of smoked salmon, trout, or sardines–or umami in mushrooms (served over a seared or grilled fish)–pairs well with bolder wines, such as an Italian Nebbiolo or California Zinfandel. Consider the umami flavors in your dish: if this component is present, you might be able to pair with a more bold red.

Suggested Red Wine and Seafood Pairings

  • Grilled Salmon with Pinot Noir: Pan fry or bake the salmon and serve with a cool climate Pinot Noir, like Foggy Canyon Pinot Noir or Bellflower “Wanderlust” Pinot Noir.
  • Tuna with Rosé: This classic French pairing might come as a surprise, but try it once and you will see why it’s a favorite for many. A weightier rosé cuts the fat and meatiness of the tuna and cleanses the palate for another bite. We suggest the Bladen Rosé.
  • Swordfish and Sun-dried Tomato, Sausage, Olive, and Parsley Relish with Nebbiolo: Swordfish is meaty yet mild, which makes it easy to pair with many relishes and sauces (and wines). This meaty sauce reaches high umami levels because of the fat of the swordfish, the meat of the sausage, and the richness of the sun-dried tomatoes. Pair with a weighty wine with higher tannins, such as the Coste di Rose Barolo Riserva or Malabaila di Canale Donna Costanza Castelletto Riserva.
  • Seafood Paella with Bierzo: Bierzo, a region in Spain that makes bright and delicious wines from the lesser-known Mencia grape, is far from Valencia, the region known for its seafood paella. However, the perfect marriage of Bierzo with paella makes it seem as if the two come from the same region and were created for one another. We suggest the Mencia Cenetenaria.
  • Coffee and Coriander Crusted Ahi with Syrah: Yes, you can pair Syrah with fish, given that the dish is the “perfect storm”: the dish must be with a weightier fish (like ahi), it must be cooked and not raw, and it must have the accompanying herbs or spices to hold up against the bold red wine (in this case, the coffee and coriander seeds). We suggest the Romulus Shiraz.
  • Vitello Tonnato with Barbera: Tuna with red wine? If it’s good enough for the Italians, then it’s good enough for us. Vitello tonnato is a classic Italian dish made of veal with an egg-based tuna and caper sauce. Red wine might seem to be the last thing one would pair with this dish, which includes capers, vinegar, lemon, and dijon mustard . . . but some things are better left unexplained, and this classic red wine and vitello tonnato pairing might be one of them. Sommeliers suggest everything from Nebbiolo to Cotes du Rhone with this dish; we suggest Cesco Barbera D’Alba Superiore.