David LeFevre
magnify Click image to view more.

Catches & Matches

Merrill Shindler - March 2010

When it comes to fish and seafood wine pairings, let the kitchen be your guide.

Of this we can be sure: White wine with fish, red wine with meat. Except when it's red wine with fish, and white wine with meat. Which is perfectly acceptable. Except when it's not. Of this, we can be sure.

Speak to the powers-that-be at the best seafood restaurants in America, and they're in total agreement--the old rules are no more. And there are no new rules to replace those old rules. Except, there are. Rules which clearly state that these days, it isn't the fish that matters. It's the preparation of the fish. It's the accoutrements served with the fish. It's the whole package, the gestalt of the plate. That's what really matters when choosing a wine in a seafood house. Unless you still want white, which many diners apparently do. Even if that white is big, oaky, totally overwhelming. If it makes the diner happy, then it's the right wine. And that may be the most important rule of all.

Aldo Sohm, the "chef sommelier" at Le Bernardin (NYC), likes to tell a story about how the customer is right--even when he's not: "In my early days as a sommelier, I saw a customer having fried calamari and enjoying a '76 Lafite Rothschild. I was shaking my head, saying, ‘That's terrible!' The chef said, ‘Look at the gentleman--see how he's enjoying himself? Do you want to go and tell him what he's doing is wrong?'"

When it comes to seafood and wine, we live in an age when rules are rewritten on the spot. One guideline I've come upon is the somewhat whimsical "white wine with white seafood, pink wine with pink seafood, and red wine with red seafood." Or perhaps it's not so whimsical, for redder fish, like tuna and shark, go strikingly well with Zinfandel, while grilled fish cry out for a good Cabernet or a Pinot Noir. And of course beer, especially artisanal beer, goes well with most everything. And the combination of beer and oysters is a match made in heaven.

Indeed, these days, piscatorial wisdom suggests that it's not so much the fish as it is the way the fish is prepared that determines the wine that matches best. As David LeFevre, executive chef at Water Grill in Los Angeles puts it: "Fish is versatile. In the past, back in the day, it was mostly poached, steamed, broiled, or sautéed. Now, there's a lot of grilling, confiting, braising, glazing with soy. A wine is often best chosen based on the technique used to cook the fish. As an example, if I took a John Dory, steamed it, and served it with braised green cabbage and a beurre blanc--then white wine makes sense. It matches the delicacy. But if I broiled it and served it over sautéed trumpet royale mushrooms with a red wine reduction, then it's moving toward red wine.

"It can be a great challenge," LeFevre elaborates. "Take the fish by itself, and a lot of people say white. But consider the whole package, the accoutrements, the vegetables, and it can pull toward red. There are reasons not to think red wine with fish. But that's changed. Look at the wines produced in great seafood areas--like the rosés of Marseille, the wines of Portugal, Spain, Southern Italy. That's what goes with seafood."

For Rajat Parr, wine director for The Mina Group, the challenge in creating a wine list for Michael Mina's latest Las Vegas culinary extravaganza, American Fish (see "Fish Four Ways," page 54), has been tied to the menu's four categories of cooking--salt-baked, wood grilled and smoked, cast-iron griddled, and poached in ocean water.

"The hardest part," says Parr, "was finding wines that worked with the fish cooked in ocean water. The water adds such complexity to the dishes. But we also have to deal with the subtlety of the fish. We had to find wines without much oak, not much butter flavor, more mineral, lemon, lime, which equalizes the minerality the ocean water brings to the fish." To do this, Parr came up with a list that includes an entire page of what he describes lyrically as "Light Crisp Dry Whites"--a selection of 23 wines such as 2008 Regis Minet Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire, 2004 Movia Pinot Grigio Vila Marija from Slovenia, and 2005 Marisa Cuomo Fiorduva from Campania.

"For the salt baking, that's where rich whites come into play," he continues. "Salt baking doesn't add anything directly to the flavor of the seafood, but it keeps the juices inside the fish, making the flavor more intense. We need to use Chardonnays, white Burgundies--a balance of minerality and oak. By contrast, fish that's been smoked on a cedar plank works best with bigger, oakier wines--California Chardonnays, whites from the South of Italy, older white Burgundies, and Champagne, which has acidity and effervescence that bring out the flavor in the fish. Smoky flavor and sparkling wine almost always match each other perfectly--that's a great realization. Wood grilling is very smoky, and that demands red wine, like a softer Syrah, a Pinot, a Gamay."

And when it comes to cast-iron griddling, the world is Parr's proverbial oyster: "A lot of the dishes were created to work best with red wines, especially low tannin red wines. Napa Cabs won't work. Neither will American Syrahs. Mostly the reds that work are from the South of France, Spain, and Italy. The restaurant's called American Fish, but it's not an all-American list. It's about half and half."

Parr also has to face the challenge of a chef who loves to discover and work with new fish. Rather than panicking, he analyzes the fish for three elements: With skin or without skin…oily or not…intense fish flavor or mild. "Once I've determined those three characteristics," states Parr, "I have a direction to go in. Skin in particular changes the wine match so much. If there's skin, the wine has to be intense. There's so much fattiness, and caramelization of the fat and the skin. With skin on rouget or loup de mer, I always go with a red wine. White wine will fade if there's skin."

Where seafood restaurants on the western side of the country take pride in their steady shift from white to red wines, the most famous fish operation in Boston still finds that white continues to rule the roost--at least, for the moment. Sandy Block, the illustrious master of wine for Legal Sea Foods, says, "I have a section on my lists that reads, ‘Red Wine with Fish.' At our restaurants, white wine is still the rule. But red is moving up fast."

What Block is committed to--in a city where Sam Adams Lager is king--is to helping his customers overcome their timidity when it comes to matching wine with seafood. "I train my staff to talk about the texture, the transformation through the cooking technique, the sauces, and the accompaniments," he explains. "I want them to think of the wine flavors as another condiment on the plate. The question is, what balances the flavors. What enhances the flavors.

"The fears people have about wine is that they're going to be overcharged, they're going to get a wine they don't like, and they're going to be embarrassed in front of their guests. If we offer people alternatives, different styles of wine, it eliminates that. It makes it user-friendly."

To do that, Block has created an instructional program he calls "The Language of Love": "It's about using descriptive terms that are appealing. Delivering the message about wine in a way that's enthusiastic and positive. It's about the guest. We want them to get a wine that's their preference. When they ask what we recommend, they're really asking what they're going to like. So, we offer them choices in terms everyone can relate to--peachy, fruit character, a bit more grapefruit-ish. And it can be tricky. I haven't encountered a fish that's stumped me yet, but some of our sauces are very spicy, pungent, and assertive--and very tough on wines. We have recommendations for all our fish. But if the sauce is peppery and garlicky, it's hard on wine."

Which brings us back to Sohm at Le Bernardin, who has to deal with some of the most ingenious seafood preparations in the world. "Most people may think white wine with fish. They may think red wine with cheese. But I disagree. It's all about how it is prepared," he states. "Is it poached? Is it grilled? From something as simple as that, you have different flavors. The sauce plays a major role. I have to take that into consideration to help our diners make an informed choice.

"People may look at me like I'm crazy if I suggest a red. But I'm OK with that. I can take that. It starts a conversation about the wine. I show them the options--they have a black bass that's seared and comes with an Iberico ham sauce with creamed peppercorns. It has such richness. Of course you can do a white. But a white is boring. So, you do a red. And it's a challenge to find a red that's both soft enough and strong enough to hold up without overwhelming the fish.

"I've been going crazy on Rhône-style wines--the more Mourvèdre, the better." And his near-encyclopedic 52 page list offers several, including California Rhône varietals like the Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant 2004 (built of Mourvèdre and Syrah) along with a 2007 Parmelee-Hill Syrah. He's also reverent about the "harmony" that comes with matching salmon with Pinot Noir from Argentina. One of his favorite finds is a 2007 Familia Schroeder Saurus Pinot Noir from Patagonia, which he describes as "a very easy to drink Pinot." Alternate favorites include the 2006 Domaine Heresztyn Gevrey Chambertin Vieilles Vignes Pinot Noir, the Daniel Rion 2002 Nuits Saint Georges Vieilles Vignes, and the 2006 Au Bon Climat La Bauge Au-Dessus Santa Maria County Pinot Noir.

"To choose a wine, I taste the whole dish. It's like a relationship. There's give and take. The fish has to give the wine something back. There has to be a harmonious circle. For me, what's most important is both the food and the wine together. I have to restrain myself, to make sure it works. I may want more of a wine. But if it's not the right match, it won't work. Whenever you see a fish dish anywhere in the world, you see a glass of wine with it. Fish and wine were meant to be together. It's a tricky point. Life is easy," Sohm concludes, "But it's not that easy, especially when it comes to fish and wine."