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Pairing wine with fish: What to choose

From fish and chips, to grilled sardines, classic sole meunière, ceviche and sushi, discover the right wines to pair with any fish dish

Whether eating out or cooking at home, pescatarians are regularly spoiled for choice. Not only is there a wide diversity of species, but fish is a versatile ingredient that can be cooked in different ways – and even enjoyed raw. 

This means that you’ll find an array of grapes and wine styles that will pair with fish. Tradition dictates that you should always match white wine with fish, but in some cases red wine can make an ideal pairing – as can rosé. It all depends on the type of fish you’re eating and how it’s prepared. 

Both texture and flavour are key here. Fish can broadly be divided into four groups: 

  • Lean and flaky mild fish – plaice, sole, perch
  • Medium-textured fish – trout, seabass, haddock, cod  
  • Meaty fish – salmon, tuna, monkfish, swordfish
  • Strong-flavoured fish – herring, mackerel, sardines, anchovies 

Within these groups there are some general guidelines. Delicate white fish fillets need a lighter white wine; think Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Albariño or Grüner Veltiner. Meanwhile meatier fish like tuna can stand up to more robust flavours such as oaked Chardonnay, Viognier or rosé

But how a fish is cooked – grilling, baking, frying or on the barbecue – will help to narrow down your wine choice. So too will the other ingredients in the dish. For example, fish served with a creamy sauce will need a wine with high acidity to cleanse the palate between bites. Spicy fish dishes call for a wine with some sweetness to balance the heat of the spices. 

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White, flaky fish fillets

Delicate and mild-flavoured fishes, such as plaice, sole and tilapia can be prepared quickly and easily by grilling or baking, and simply served with lemon and herbs. Italian whites are a natural match. As well as the ever-popular Pinot Grigio, look for grapes such as Vermentino, Fiano and Grillo, which makes fresh, lemony wines. Island whites from Sicily and Sardinia sometimes have a fresh salty tang that works well with simply grilled fish too. 

Broadly speaking, whites from coastal wine regions are a safe bet with fish. Think Portuguese Vinho Verde, featuring the Alvarinho grape, or its Spanish cousin Albariño from Rías Baixas. Greek Assyrtiko, particularly from the island of Santorini is another great choice. 

Wines like Assyrtiko, with high natural acidity, work well with delicate white fish in creamy sauces or cooked in butter. An unoaked Chardonnay, such as Chablis is a reliable choice, so too bone-dry Muscadet from the Loire Valley – which is also one of the classic matches for oysters and other seafood. 

Speaking of classic matches, a good, subtly oaked white Burgundy makes a perfect partner with grilled lemon sole or Dover sole meunière (fried in butter with a dusting of flour).

Textured white fish

Ocean dwellers such as cod, halibut, haddock and sea bass can also be categorised as flaky white fish, but with bigger flakes and a more robust texture, they tend to be used in dishes with richer sauces, spices and strong-flavoured herbs.

This means you can opt for a more robust white wine, maybe with some oak or bottle age. Try styles such as aged White Rioja or Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. 

Exotic, spicy Alsace whites made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris, possibly with a touch of residual sugar, will pair well with Asian-spiced textured white fish dishes. Similarly for spicy fish tacos choose an aromatic Austrian Grüner Veltliner or German Riesling – again with a touch of sweetness to temper the spice. While ceviche, the vibrant South American dish of raw fish marinated in citrus juices, will pair well with Argentinian Torrontés or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. 

Herbs such as dill, tarragon, parsley, chives, marjoram and lemongrass all work particularly well with fish. Herby fish dishes call for wines that complement those flavours with their own vibrant herbal notes. Sauvignon Blanc – either fresh, zesty versions from New Zealand or more restrained herbaceous styles from the Loire Valley – makes a reliable option. 

If your cod or haddock is fried in batter – either a light Japanese tempura or the classic fish and chips – look for a fresh, dry white with high acidity to counter the fattiness. Again Alvarinho/Albariño or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Chile or New Zealand will work well. But the truly winning combination with fried fish is a dry fizz, as the combination of bubbles and high acidity effortlessly cut through the batter. A blanc de blancs Champagne ticks the box neatly for a decadent choice, but you’ll find blanc de blanc sparklers from all around the world at a variety of price points.

Meaty and pink fish

When you’re pairing wines with fish that has a more meaty texture – such as swordfish or monkfish – as well as pink-fleshed fishes like tuna and salmon, the range of styles to choose from increases, as rosés and lighter reds will often work better than whites. 

For example a chilled New World Pinot Noir would match equally well with seared tuna or seared salmon. Dry rosés pair especially well with all kinds of salmon dishes – and you needn’t stick to still wines. Try sparkling rosé with smoked salmon; the texture of the bubbles makes a brilliant contrast with the soft fattiness of the fish. A fruity rosé Champagne can even stand up to the chargrilled flavours of barbecued salmon

As always, the golden rule is to think not only about the fish itself, but how it is cooked and what ingredients it’s served with. Grapes and styles including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, manzanilla Sherry, Pinot Noir and English sparkling are among the many options for pairing with salmon depending on the dish. 

Pairings with tuna dishes are similarly versatile. Juicy reds such as Beaujolais or Chinon, Austrian Zweigelt, Italy’s underrated Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Dolcetto or Valpolicella, will match grilled, seared and barbecued tuna. But tuna ceviche or carpaccio call for crisp citrus whites such as Picpoul de Pinet or cool-climate Chardonnay. 

Raw tuna and salmon are of course, also popular ingredients in sushi, with matches including dry mineral whites, Koshu, Pinot Noir, Brunello and Burgundy, depending on the style.    

Meaty fishes often feature in more robustly spiced Indian cuisine – with dishes such as tandoor-grilled monkfish as well as Caribbean and Thai curries. Here the combination of spices and heat of the dish are as important as the texture and flavour of the fish, so focus on wine styles that work with spicy food.

Fish with strong flavours

Oily fish such as mackerel, herrings and sardines carry intense flavours of the sea and need a crisp, bracing wine to match. There are plenty of white (Portugal’s Vinho Verde), rosé (Provence) and red (Gamay-based wines that can be served chilled for extra bite) options. 

Strongly flavoured fish is often simply cooked – after all, it doesn’t need much help to enhance its taste – on the grill or barbecue and served just with a squeeze of lemon or herbs. Try barbecue sardines with minerally Albariño, citrus Picpoul de Pinet or Sauvignon Blanc.  

Fresh tapas-style Mediterranean anchovies are a delight with Iberian whites: Alvarinho, Albariño, Verdejo, Txakoli and salty fino or manzanilla Sherry. Cured anchovies, often used as a pizza topping or with tomato-based pasta sauces like punchy puttanesca, call for a light, juicy red. Italy’s Bardolino and Valpolicella are a good call, as are Spanish reds made from the Mencía grape.  

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