Breaking a rule: let’s try pairing red wine with fish


It’s a well known rule: red wine goes with red meat, and white wine goes with white meat, including fish and other seafood. This axiom is so well ingrained that it is followed all over the world. However, we know from experience that some white wines stand up beautifully to red meat dishes; conversely, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be pairing red wine with fish and seafood – provided you are careful in your choice of wine with a particular dish. We believe that understanding the reason behind the rule makes you better prepared to bend it a little.

Think about the food

1. Flavour

It is generally believed that red wine will overpower the flavour of fish, which is often much subtler and more delicate than other types of meat. Of course not all fish flavours are subtle; indeed tuna, salmon, sardines and anchovies (to name just a few) all have very distinct and strong flavours. Additionally, the cooking method used to prepare the fish can intensify flavours; for example by concentrating fish stock or adding ingredients such as tomato or chilli. And, clearly, fish cooked in red wine or served with a red wine sauce can also be accompanied by a glass of red wine.

So when you’re wondering whether you should try a red with your fish, the first thing to consider is the strength of flavour of the dish. Try to match the boldness of your wine with the richness of your dish.

2. Acidity

The next thing to consider is how acidic the dish is. This may sound strange, but think about it: quite a few Asian seafood dishes feature lime; European dishes often contain a smattering of vinegar in the sauce or cooking liquor; and in many countries it is common to drizzle lemon juice over your fish just before eating it. All of these elements are acidic, and they clash horribly with the tannins found in most red wines.

3. Texture

Lastly, there is the question of the “meatiness”, or texture, of the fish. Different types of fish and seafood have different textures, and how you cook the fish also influences its texture. For example, a piece of grilled swordfish will be much firmer (meatier) than a lightly pan-fried snapper fillet or a silky piece of salmon poached in butter. The firmer fish is more likely to stand up to a bolder red wine; the more delicate fish is better suited to a lighter wine.

Think about the wine

You have a lovely bottle of pinotage tucked away, but will it go with the tilapia you just bought? In this case, probably not. Tilapia is a fairly delicate fish and pinotage is a powerful, full bodied wine; you’re unlikely to get enough flavour into your tilapia dish to match the wine and yet still taste the fish.

As a general rule of thumb, light to medium bodied red wines with little or no tannin usually work best with fish and other seafood.

Try pairing Hesketh’s Ebenezer Grenache with grilled or barbecued fish; its complex aromas of red fruits, coffee and chocolate will marry well with the char and smokiness of the meat. For a simple dish of white fish pan fried in olive oil with onions, capers and herbs, you could select a light, fruity wine with fresh acidity such as Yealands’ Single Vineyard Pinot Noir.

It’s possible to pair some fish and shellfish dishes with bolder wines, depending on the texture and depth of flavour. If you serve fish with a savoury mushroom sauce, try a cool climate pinot noir such as Hesketh’s Unfinished Business Pinot Noir. As well as bright fruit character, this has earthiness, oak and spice which will complement the savouriness of the dish. A tomato-based dish such as cataplana would pair with a more medium bodied, somewhat acidic pinot noir like Louis Latour’s Côte de Nuits-Villages. And seafood stewed or braised in a rich creamy or spicy sauce, even fish soup, with intense flavours will stand up to a bolder red wine such as Famille Perrin’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Explore pairing red wine with fish for yourself

Light to medium bodied red wines with little or no tannin work best with seafood. If you want to experiment, look out for lighter wines such as grenache, cabernet franc and pinot noir. If red wine with fish doesn’t do it for you, but you don’t like white wine, try a rosé; the lighter style often works very well with fish and it should retain some of the character of the red wine grapes.

Remember that fish dishes which are acidic in tone need very careful matching with red wine, and may well just be better with white wine. (Also, beware of beurre blanc dishes; the sauce is made from shallots and white wine and will bring out any bitterness in the red.)

Pairing red wine with fish requires careful thought about balancing the flavour, acidity and texture of the food with the body, tannins and acidity of the wine. However, by understanding how to choose a suitable red wine to go with your fish dish, you open the door to a whole realm of taste possibilities. Pairing red wine with fish can sometimes result in delicious combinations. Go ahead, give it a try, we’d love to hear how you get on!