For centuries, red wine and fish was considered a disastrous wine and food pairing. However, for red wine lovers, the combination of red wine with a fish course can be quite enjoyable.
There are challenges to this somewhat unconventional pairing, however. The biggest is the higher tannin levels red wines exhibit over whites. Tannins are the astringencies that give red wine its structure and life. Unfortunately, they tend to clash with oil in more flavorful fish and overwhelm more delicate fish, reasons why most people are shy about using red wines in such pairings.
Tannins come from the steeping of the juice on the grapes’ skins, during and after fermentation, as well as from the grape seeds and stems. To compound the tannin issue, most reds are aged in wood, which also offers increased tannin to the wine.
To deal with the oil and tannins possibly clashing, simply look for reds that resemble white wines in style – high in acid and low in tannin and alcohol. Also avoid red wines that have spent long time slumbering in barrels ,as those that haven’t will be lighter and less astringent. Aging in new versus old barrels gives more tannin to the wine. Some of the less expensive releases in any category usually have lower tannins, so experiment with these bottlings.
Lighter, less ripe vintages often have less extract, lower tannins and body and higher acidity, which make them excellent candidates for fish courses. For those who like higher extracted reds, try pairing well-aged bottles with your fish dishes, as the tannins become lower and less perceptible with time.
When pairing a wine with a food course, consider the flavor weight of the dish and try to find a wine that will stand up to the body of the entrée without overwhelming it. When you are planning your meal, also keep in mind that the condiments, preparation and sauces change the intensity of flavor of the fish, which can alter the wine choice.
Bridging red wine and fish by using spices, cheese or a sauce, can make a lighter fish sing with a fuller-bodied red wine. Try echoing the black pepper character in Grenache/Garnacha or pairing a light flounder and cheese sauce with an intense Merlot. Cheese, Alfredo, red wine and tomato sauces can create this bridge, as will black pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander and chili.
The preparation also dictates flavor. Grilled and smoked fish dishes are more intense in flavor and will handle a red wine match.
Some of these lighter reds you know but might not normally drink. Dry Lambrusco, Tempranillo (particularly the Joven and Crianza levels from Rioja), Gamay/Beaujolais, Grenache/Garnacha, Barbera, Sangioveses/Chiantis that are lighter in tannin, Cabernet Franc/Chinon and Pinot Noir (try some examples from Alsace and Germany that are softer in style). The success of the pairing will depend on the intensity of both the wine and the food.
It is perfectly fine to consider a dry Rosé to pair with your fish dish. Many excellent Rosés are being released and are extremely food flexible due to their light tannins and firm acidity. Numerous top producers are concentrating the flavors in their red wines by drawing off juice before fermentation, leaving top quality grape must (juice) with a hint of pink, which means a lot of fine Rosé is being released with respectable credentials at a reasonable price.
The fuller-flavored fish you might consider for your menu? Tuna, wahoo, swordfish, salmon, marlin, mahi-mahi, shark, bluefish, monkfish and sturgeon. You might want to avoid exceptionally strong-flavored fish, though, or pair them with white wine.