The old age saying goes, “White wine with fish and red wine with meat.” This has been a rule of thumb for generations—but is it a tenet you should follow today?
Just like everything in the wine world, the answer is complex. But, after all, some rules were made to be broken—and if you don’t challenge what many experts now say is a myth, you might miss out on some incredible wine and food pairings. Here’s why you might want to consider pairing red wines with fish and white varietals with meat—and how to break this rule successfully.
Why is this the reason it became the ‘golden rule’ of wine pairing? It’s easy to remember—and does work well, most of the time. For example, you might not know the difference between a Premier Cru and a Grand Cru—but it’s fairly easy to remember that red wine goes well with your ribeye. Ultimately, it’s a simple rule that’s hard to mess up, and many classic pairings adhere to it: think sauvignon blanc with oysters, chardonnay with lobster, and cabernet sauvignon with steak.
By far the most incredibly important thing to consider with pairing wine and food is to strive for balance in flavor intensity. Wine should never overpower the food (and vice versa). It’s why sommeliers wouldn’t pair a very light, delicate white fish like a filet of sole with a bold, robust red wine: the nuances in the dish would be clobbered by the strength of the wine.
Some say the reason why this rule became so ubiquitous comes down to texture: Red meat tends to have a lot of fat, which can coat your tongue and overwhelm your palate with richness. One way to clean that off? Red wine with a good amount of tannin, a compound in wine that’s naturally occurring in the seeds, stems, and skins of grapes; tannin molecules can bind onto fatty proteins and help clean them off your tongue, refreshing your palate in the process. Because white wines are vinified without grape skins, they don’t have enough tannin to perform the same function.
Pairing red wine with meat and white wine with fish does make sense a lot of the time. But, there are many cases where you can burn the rulebook with delicious results.
A bold red wine might be overbearing with a delicate white fish, but there is a lot of room on the spectrum. Carrie Lyn Strong, the sommelier at Strong Wine Consulting, believes red wines can work well with more intensely flavored fish: “Medium red wines from all around the world, like grenache, pinot noir, tempranillo, and cabernet franc, offer red and black berry fruits, spice, and earthy notes that enhance the smoky flavors of grilled tuna, swordfish, and salmon.”
Not only are some fish more intensely flavored, but preparations like grilling add even more punch making them able to stand up to bolder flavors in your wine. Looking for a surefire option? Try a luscious grenache with Crisp Grilled Salmon with Fennel-Olive Relish.
On the other hand, rich red meats can work with white wine—if it’s the right one. You can complement the richness of the pork, lamb, or beef with a rich white like a white Côtes du Rhône or Friulano, or you can contrast that richness with a crisp, perky option like Champagne or Chenin blanc.
Consider Your Side Dishes
A meal like Halibut with Mushrooms, which leads with the rich, savory umami of roasted mushrooms, would pair beautifully with a red-like pinot noir. Other robust vegetables commonly paired with red wines include eggplant, roasted root vegetables like beets, tomatoes, and even dark leafy greens.
If these vegetables are a vital portion of your seafood dish, you’re set to pair it with a red. Pair by the Season or Sauce.
Wine educator and writer Brianne Cohen remind us that the seasoning or sauce for a dish is also important to consider when choosing a wine: “Is the fish simply seasoned with herbs de Provence? Or is the fish in a rich, spicy tomato sauce? ” she says. “The first calls for perhaps a white Rhône blend—but the second calls for a medium-bodied red to stand up to the tomato sauce. Perhaps a Primitivo from Puglia or a cannonau from Sardinia.”
A zesty Italian red wine, like Chianti Classico, paired with a dish like Fresh Lobster Fra Diavolo is always a good idea.