Waving a banner for red wine with fish

Prejudices run deep, though in this case I’m not talking about weighty issues like biases in race, gender or religion, but instead about the congenial, if by no means trivial, preconceived notions that persist about wine. Specifically focused on that time-worn maxim, “Red wine with meat, white wine with fish,” countered by my personal delight in twisting rules to wave a banner for red wine with fish.

To put things in order, I broke the color bar back around 1980 when a wise and witty winemaker named Nino Franceschetti introduced me to the wonders of a sumptuous roasted sea bass (branzino or spigola, as you prefer) with a well-aged Amarone. That revelation opened my mind, and yet I’ve found myself feasting away over the decades surrounded by otherwise reasonable gastronomes who, when it comes to seafood, stick stubbornly to white wine, or possibly rosé.

Truth be told, I’m not alone in my quest to break the color bar, nor have we red renegades carried our cause so far that we can’t appreciate, indeed adore, a cool glass of white, still or bubbly, with delectable creatures of the sea.

Matches with red wine may require a bit of imagination, ad-libbing and audacity in knowing that you’re not breaking rules because there are no rules to break. The first consideration in such match-ups should be deciding just what creature of the sea—or lake or river or pond or brook, for that matter—you are dealing with. Fish come in many shapes and sizes, structures, textures and flavors, ranging through types known as seafood or fresh water fish, mollusks, crustaceans, gastropods, eels, and much more.

They may be fresh caught or frozen or preserved by salting or drying or smoking or pickling with oil and vinegar and herbs. Then comes the question of how the fish is prepared. Is it raw, grilled, wood-roasted, sautéed in extra virgin oil or butter? Is it baked, braised, deep fried or poached? Is it spicy or cooked with fresh or dry herbs, tomatoes or other vegetables, fresh or dried fruit, olives, capers, mushrooms, oranges, lemon? In many cases, the fish dish that finally ends up on the table will reflect intuitive amalgams of ingredients.

It’s often said that lighter fish dishes go with agile, zesty reds and that substantial, fleshier fish dishes find their matches in reds of greater structure, roundness and flavor intensity. But to me that’s beginning to sound too much like a rule. Rather than generalize, I decided to pick out a few reds from around Italy and suggest some dishes that struck my fancy, inspired by the notion that a fundamental in matching red wine with fish is the element of surprise.

Alto Adige Santa Maddalena Classico DOC 2019 Griesbauerhof. Whether you call it Santa Maddalena or Sankt Magdalener and the variety Schiava or Vernatsch, this Alpine red is simply delicious. Aromas of wild berries and a fresh roundness on the palate, with remarkable length marked by sweet and silky tannins. It would make as appetizing a match with Alpine brook trout as it would with grilled eels from the Adriatic Comacchio lagoon. 

Etna Rosso DOC Cisterna Fuori 2018 Ciro Biondi. Bright ruby with scents evincing volcanic flora and fresh, savory flavors with velvety texture, Cisterna Fuori shines with caponata di capone, in which the usual eggplant is replaced by the fish known as capone (Trigla lucerna or tub gurnard). Another treat would be gravlax: salmon marinated with salt, dill and caper flowers.

 Valpolicella Superiore 2018 Allegrini. The Ripasso version is the big seller but to my taste the fresh fruity goodness of Valpolicella Superiore is more satisfying with food, including most dishes with fish. It would shine with baccalà alla Veronese—salt cod with a spicy tomato and onion sauce. Or, for a gastronomic extravaganza, match the Allegrini Amarone with an equally majestic roasted sea bass.

Lambrusco di Sorbara Purezza, Silvia Zucchi. The vibrant, snappy fruit flavors and creamy bubbles of this Lambrusco could make it a match for just about any tasty dish from the sea. It’s guaranteed to lend sparkle to the crisp and crunchy mixed fry known as fritto misto mare.

Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva Pietramora 2016 Fattoria Zerbina. Fresh fruit and berries and a spicy and earthy quality in bouquet, powerful, warm and dynamic on the palate with smooth tannins evident on a long and persistent finish. This Sangiovese di Romagna would make a fine match with a French classic Mérou au Bleu de Bresse. That is, dusky grouper poached and served cold with a sauce of eggs and butter enhanced by the popular bleu that once again dispels the myth that fish and cheese don’t go together.

Salice Salentino DOC 2019 Masseria Borgo dei Trulli. Speaking of fish and cheese, one of my favorite pastas is spaghetti with a pungent sauce based on sautéed anchovies and onions and topped with showers of grated Parmigiano. And I can’t think of a wine that would do it greater justice than a red from Puglia’s Salento combining Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera. This Salice Salentino combines great drinkability with ripe aromas of cherries and plums and a balsamic note that carries over into its round, persistent, elegant flavor:

Langhe Nebbiolo DOC Ochetti 2019 Renato Ratti. Nebbiolo from Barolo’s hills with fresh varietal aromas, soft tannins and supple flavors makes a classic match with vitello tonnato. If that’s not fishy enough for you, try it with vitello di mare or palombo (Mustelus), a mild-mannered shark prepared as a cotoletta coated with bread crumbs, fried and smothered in a potpourri that takes in garlic, onions, tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, spices and herbs ad hoc.

Cannonau di Sardegna DOC Sartiu 2019 Giuseppe Sedilesu. A brilliant example of a young Cannonau, ready to drink but capable of aging. It shows deep garnet color and an array of aromatic notes that takes in lavender and meadow flowers with flavors that are full and elegant and long on the palate. A sure winner with Aragosta alla Catalana, Mediterranean lobster boiled and cracked open in its shell and dressed with cherry tomatoes, potatoes, onions, lemon and capers.

Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2019 Il Poggione. A well-rounded red with aromas hinting at berries and spices and fresh, mouth-filling flavors, full and articulated yet crisp and fruity with a radiant finish. It would be a treat with, say, triglie alla livornese (red mullet cooked with herbs and spices) though it has the verve to vie with that other specialty of Livorno cacciucco a mixed fish soup rife with tomatoes, peppers, herbs and spices.

Hierà Sicilia IGT 2018 Carlo Hauner. From Calabrese with Alicante and Nocera, it shows bright ruby-violet with the fragrance and flavors of Mediterranean fruits, berries and spices. On the palate it shows ample structure and depth with plush texture and an elegant lingering finish. Some consider this a wine for meats and cheeses, but I back Carlo’s view that it’s equally well suited to seafood dishes of pronounced flavor, such as grilled swordfish steaks or fresh tuna with caper sauce.

Barolo del Comune di La Morra DOCG 2016 Roberto Voerzio. A Barolo with the essential aroma and flavor traits of the Voerzio crus, but with brighter color, softer tannins and supple body and texture. Roberto served it with an all-seafood lunch with friends at Viareggio and said, “it just blew us away.” Two dishes stood out: raw gamberi rossi of Mazara del Vallo and orata alla ligure, gilt-head bream, roasted with tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic and herbs.