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How to Pair and Choose a Good Wine for Your Favorite Fish

Extend your pairing knowledge past ''fish goes better with white wine'' and learn why different wines complement various fish textures.

How to Pair and Choose a Good Wine for Your Favorite Fish
How to Pair and Choose a Good Wine for Your Favorite Fish

On a normal day, I drink beer with fish. On a good day, I drink wine. Every new wine drinker has heard of that rule: white wine goes with fish. This is generally true, but it doesn't always have to be that simple. Fish – light, dark, lean, oily, ocean or freshwater – are variable in taste and texture, and they can be prepared many ways. Not only should your wine complement the fish, it should also complement the style of cooking you apply to it.

But don't worry. Since when did eating and drinking have so many rules? Instead, use this knowledge to widen your options and to try new pairings. So bear with me before you reach back for that can of Bud.

Below are some of my favorites wines to serve with fish and seafood, and as I keep saying and will say over and over again: you don't have to spend any more than $20 on decent bottle of wine, and I enjoy many in the $10-12 range.

Lean and Flaky

In the freshwater category, light and flaky fish includes crappie, bluegill, sunfish, walleye, perch, white bass, wiper, drum, etc. Among saltwater fish, think of the mild textures and flavors of rock fish, red snapper, cod, flounder, lingcod, pollock, sole, etc.

It's hard to go wrong with most white wines in this category—choose a white that suits your taste and the ingredients that were cooked with the fish. Fruity, crisp and light-bodied wines such as pinot grigio (pinot gris), sauvignon blanc, and Riesling are my go-tos. These wines are widely available and relatively inexpensive. If you like something more full-bodied, an unoaked, citrusy chardonnay will be delicious with your meal.

For dishes served with a creamy sauce, I recommend chardonnay's dryness and acidity to balance richer ingredients.

For lightly prepared fish seasoned with fresh green herbs, sauvignon blanc's bright and herbaceous profile is a good choice.

And for spicier, Asian-type seafood recipes, smoked fish or sushi, you may choose a sweeter white to complement the heat, such as Riesling, dry Riesling, Piesporter Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Indian flavors also pair well with these sweeter whites.

My favorites are Kendall-Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Pinot Grigio (California), Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (Italy), Kidia Sauvignon Blanc (Chile); Matua Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand), Bogle Sauvignon Blanc (California), Gregory Graham Sauvignon Blanc (California), Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling and Dry Riesling (Washington), Pacific Rim Riesling (Washington), Leonard Kreusch Piesporter Michelsberg Riesling Auslese (Germany), and Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewürztraminer.

Medium Fish

I place freshwater fish such as catfish, trout, northern pike, muskellunge, and carp; and saltwater fish such as grouper, dorado (mahi mahi), monkfish, and skate, in the "medium" category, although my opinion here is debatable. Firmer and perhaps a bit more oily and stronger flavored in some species, these fish may not resemble shark meat but they also won't fall apart on your spatula like a delicate crappie would.

Most of the wines mentioned under "lean and flaky fish" will be suitable, but I tend to lean towards fuller-bodied, dryer wines such as oaked chardonnay or dry rosé. Dry riesling, sauvignon blanc, and pinot grigio will also fit the bill.

My favorites are Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay (Washintgon), Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" Chardonnay (California), Bogle Chardonnay (California), 14 Hands Chardonnay (Washington), JaM Cellars Butter Chardonnay (California), Bieler Pere et Fils Rosé (France), Aime Roquesante Cotes de Provence Cuvee Reservee, and Le Rosé de Mouton Cadet.


Meaty or Darker Fish

When cooking and eating fish, the word "steak" doesn't usually come to mind. But certain fish, such as paddlefish, swordfish, salmon, tuna, marlin, shark and wahoo, do have a meaty, substantial quality that separates them from the rest of the school. These toothsome fish deserve wines that will stand up to their special flavor profiles.

These fish will cook and firm up quite nicely. I recommend grilling or smoking, and if marinated or cured beforehand, the added spices on the fish will allow for a darker wine, although an oaked chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or dry rosé would still be fitting. A darker wine option includes pinot noir, especially for redder fish such as tuna or salmon. Although I have little experience with burgundy, I understand that it could also be a good choice, too.

If consuming fish raw as in sushi, tartare or ceviche, I would stick with the previous wine suggestions. Chardonnay, dry riesling, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, rosé … they'll work. Champagne or dry prosecco could also be delicious with sushi as well.

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