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November 3, 2011

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Unlikely pairings can be amazing

THERE exist certain truisms in the wine world and one of the most popular is that white wines are best for seafood while red wines are best for most meats, especially red meats. In general, this is correct.

It's fair to say that about 95 percent of the time you are better off pairing a white wine with seafood, but the 5 percent exceptions can be delicious examples of unconventional synergy.

Like everyone else, during my early wine education I was taught that it was the tannins in red wine that clashed with seafood while the acidity and fruit in white wines were complementary qualities.

No one really questioned this theory as even a wine novice would sense how most red wines made seafood taste worse and most whites made the seafood taste better.

While the acidity in whites would accentuate the freshness and all the good qualities of seafood, red wines seemed to do the exact opposite and it was blamed on the tannins.

The science

Then about a decade ago a Japanese scientist who also happened to be a wine lover led a study that for the first time did the requisite science to understand why most red wines clash with seafood.

Low and behold, what the study found was that while strong tannins are certainly no friend of seafood as they tend to overpower the delicacy of seafood, they are also not the major culprit.

The study published in the "ACS' Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry" discovered that naturally occurring irons found in many red wines accentuate unpleasant sensations of fishiness, especially in the aftertaste.

They also confirmed that more acidic wines worked better with fish as the acid in a wine acted as a chelating agent, reducing the sensations of fishiness.

Since this ground breaking study some of us in the wine world have been on a quest to discover the best red wine and seafood combinations.

Young Pinot Noir, Chianti and Barbera wines are the three reds I most commonly pair with seafood dishes.

I'm not alone as my friends in Burgundy and the US now commonly serve their Pinots with fish and my friends in Tuscany and Piedmont are no longer afraid to match their reds with certain seafood dishes.

All these wines are light to medium bodied wines with good acidity, moderate tannins and low iron content.

Each of the grapes in these wines, Pinot Noir, mostly Sangiovese in Chiantis and Barbera mix abundant fresh fruit and a touch of attractive sourness that highlight the best qualities of seafood.

Another helpful tip to achieve success in red wine and seafood pairing is to chill the red wine.

The same Chianti I serve at 16 degrees Celsius with cheese or meat dishes I will serve at about 14 degrees with seafood. Chilling accentuates the freshness of the wines making it more suitable for seafood.

Surprising combinations

Once you understand the science it's not terribly surprising that a Pinot Noir or Chianti works well with some seafood but there are other cases that seem to defy logic.

Five or six years ago I was invited by Italian authorities to visit Apulia in southern Italy to taste their wines with local fare. This region forms the heel of the Italian boot-shaped peninsula and is renowned for its seafood.

The region is also famous for two rather hearty and rustic red wines, Primitivo in the north and Negromaro in the south.

There's only one regional white wine of note that's made in limited quantity on a hilltop so the locals usually enjoy their outrageously fresh and delicious seafood with the hearty local reds.

What surprised me most was how well the combinations worked. Over many centuries these regional red wines and seafood dishes have evolved together with ingredients and cooking techniques making them more compatible.

Red wine friendly ingredients like bread crumbs and cheese are used to make some of the most popular Apulia seafood dishes.

What seafood?

First allow me to introduce popular seafood that you should never enjoy with red wines, namely caviar, most raw fish with the possible exception of tuna belly, raw oysters and seafood dishes with acidic sauces.

In all of the aforementioned cases, you are definitely better off with a white wine. Conversely, salmon, tuna, prawns and lobster can be wonderful companions to the right red wine. A lot depends on how these dishes are prepared.

Roasted or grilled fish and shellfish with abundant natural oils are good partners to light red wines especially when they have a sauce made with red wine or reduced meat stock. Deep-fried fish is also often a good partner.

In California and the Pacific Northwest it is quite chic to serve local Pinot Noirs with Pacific salmon. In eastern Taiwan during the tuna season from April to June, the combination of freshly caught tuna belly grilled right on the docks enjoyed with chilled young Chianti is truly sublime.

Succeeding in anything that's inherently more difficult than the norm is rewarding. This is the case when pairing red wines with seafood.

Over the past few months at private wine tastings I've had a couple of noteworthy combinations. At Goga Restaurant I enjoyed the Miso Broiled Black Cod with a Cote de Beaune Pinot Noir wine that marvelously brought out the natural sweetness of the fish.

Other delicious combinations included Indonesian BBQ Prawns with a young Chianti and Teppanyaki style Sauteed Rock Lobster in a Red Wine Reduction Sauce with a Barbera d'Alba. In each case, the good acidity and fresh fruitiness of the reds made the seafood taste even more sumptuous.

So while it will always be easier and more reliable to pair seafood with white wines, a little daring may help you discover that breaking the rules can be surprisingly scrumptious.

Michele Chiarlo, Barbera d'Asti Superiore Le Orme (DOC), 2007

Region: Piedmont, Italy

Variety: Barbera

Aging Method / Potential: 8 months in large Slovenian oak/enjoy now or within the next 5 years.

Importer/price: 174 yuan (US$27) / ASC

Dry/sweet: Body:

Pairing tips: allow 10-15 minutes for breathing and serve 14~15°C; the balance and acidity make this a versatile wine for food pairing, pair with a wide range of dishes from elegant fish to meats.

an underrated wine that's overshadowed by the Barolo and Barbaresco wines also produced in Piedmont; the wine has a luminous ruby red color, lively bouquet of red berries with hints of tobacco and a lovely combination of wild berries and unripe strawberries and a clean acidic finish.

Castello di Querceto, Chianti (DOCG), 2009

Region: Tuscany, Italy

Variety: 80% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, 5% Trebbiano

Aging Method / Potential: 3 months in a combination of 50% French and 50% American oak/drink now or over the next 3 years.

Importer/price: 124 yuan / Everwines

Dry/sweet: Body:

Pairing tips: allow 10-15 minutes for breathing and serve at 14~15°C; this light to medium bodied wine is an enjoyable summer wine best served slightly chilled; match with chicken or pork dishes as well as elegant seafood.

example of a good, inexpensive Chianti wine, this wine is almost 80 percent Sangiovese with a youthful ruby red color, fragrant scents of red cherries and other red fruits and ripe fruit flavors balanced by good acidity and light tannins.

Pio Cesare, Barbera d'Alba (DOC), 2007

Region: Piedmont, Italy

Variety: Barbera

Aging Method / Potential: 3 months in large oak casks/enjoy now or within 2 years

Importer/price: 237 yuan / Everwines

Dry/sweet: Body:

Pairing tips: serve at 14~15°C; match with a variety of meat dishes as well as grilled or baked salmon, cod and lobster.

a distinctive Italian Barbera from a top producer, the wine has a lovely dark red-purple color, lively raspberry and cherry nose and typical Barbera flavors of red currants with a touch of smokiness; the wine exhibits some of the tart and refreshing qualities of a white wine.

Louis Jadot, Cote de Beaune Villages, 2007

Region: Cote de Beaune, Burgundy, France

Variety: Pinot Noir

Aging Method / Potential: 6 months in French oak/drink now or over the next 3 years

Importer/price: 378 yuan / ASC

Dry/sweet: Body:

Pairing tips: serve at 15°C; the slightly acidic finish is refreshing and makes the wine appropriate for parings with light meats or elegant fish dishes.

comprised of grapes from 16 Cotes de Beaune villages, this wine is a pleasant Burgundian expression of the Pinot Noir grape with a light ruby red color, open fruity nose and lively ripe cherry and strawberry flavors and nice clean finish.


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