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Fish and white wine? Be careful! Because the preparation method, spices and flavours are more important for fish dishes than the basic ingredient, says sommelier Katharina Gnigler. She told Alexander Lupersböck what is decisive when it comes to pairing wine with fish.

Head of Wine Katharina Gnigler has already gained a lot of experience at a young age

Gröller Hospitality

"Bootshaus" is a fitting name for one of the best fish restaurants in the German-speaking world. Katharina Gnigler has been working as Head of Wine at this restaurant directly on Lake Traunsee in Austria since autumn 2023. The head chef is four-toque chef Lukas Nagl, whose dishes she matches her selection to.

Gnigler was previously a sommelière at Weinhaus und Restaurant Döllerer in Golling, Restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen and head sommelière at Landhaus Bacher in the Wachau region. "The house is very open and Lukas thinks internationally. He likes to use Asian influences. And our guests are also increasingly keen to experiment," she explains. At Geranium, on the other hand, the four wine pairings on offer were quite classic.

When pairing food and wine, Katharina Gnigler doesn't usually focus so much on the fish as the main component, but rather on the preparation method and the flavours on the plate. Sauces and the spices used are almost more important than the basic ingredient. For example, a grilled salmon with a lemon-dill sauce is more fun with a full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc, while an Asian fish dish goes better with a Riesling.

She particularly likes sparkling wines with fish dishes, and it doesn't always have to be champagne. "A sparkling wine or pet nat can be combined just as well. The carbon dioxide and minerality that such wines bring to the table make them a safe choice in many cases. I would recommend a Blanc de Blancs with light white fish that has been poached. With grilled fish and shellfish, it can be a little more opulent, so a Blanc de Noirs or a vintage sparkling wine."

In the Bootshaus restaurant, guests sit right by the water

The Traunsee Christof Wagner

Courage for strong wines

For lighter dishes, she likes white Bordeaux, white Spanish wines such as Verdejo, as long as they are fragrant and delicate, as well as white wines from Mount Etna, as they bring saltiness. She has a slight weakness for wines from the Canary Islands with their extreme, salty austerity. This is a wonderful combination with fish with soft meat such as char or trout with citrus flavours or as ceviche.

For crustaceans or mussels, she uses wines with more vigour, as structure and texture take centre stage. Pinot Blanc or Chardonnay from limestone soils "vibrate, are salty and lively. Even caviar goes well with a Malterdinger Pinot Blanc (Kaiserstuhl)." Lobster, on the other hand, does not necessarily have to be served with Pinot Blanc. She is also happy to recommend a Riesling Großes Gewächs, for example from the Nahe.

For stronger dishes such as stew or fish goulash, she says that strong white wines from the Rhone such as Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne or a white Chateauneuf du Pape are perfect. With root fish, i.e. fish that has been poached in a broth of root vegetables and horseradish, she likes a strong, not quite young Grüner or Roter Veltliner, or a Burgundy from Baden, which absorbs the spiciness. One of the sommelier's favourite varieties is Furmint: "It's great with so many things". She likes to serve Furmint or Sauvignon Blanc, for example from Slovenia, with autumnal dishes such as sturgeon with parsley cream and pickled elderberry capers.

Chilled red wine is fun in summer

In any case, it's not just white wine that goes well with fish. She prefers to combine a sauce with a certain acidity with low-acid grape varieties or red wines. Slightly chilled, Pinot Noir or St. Laurent can also provide an exciting accompaniment to a fish dish. Gnigler points out that the season and time of day are important: "Chilled red wine is more fun on the terrace in summer than in winter."

According to Gnigler, "all elegant, delicate red wines such as Pinot Noir, St. Laurent, Beaujolais or Blaufränkisch in Burgundian style such as from the Spitzerberg or Leithaberg are suitable. "At Landhaus Bacher, we serve St. Laurent with fish in summer," she explains. If the fish is served with a paprika sauce, Cabernet Franc is also suitable. The decisive factor for her is the serving temperature.

How important is the maturity of the wines for Katharina Gnigler? "I think the vintage is more important than the stage of maturity. Some wines - including red wines - can be drunk young, but in general we should allow the wines to mature more and thus show them appreciation.

In addition to the classic wines, Piwi varieties such as Muscaris and Souvignier gris can also be found on the menu and in her wine pairings. For non-alcoholic accompaniments, she favours "tea or infusion drinks, because they bring tannins with them. I find sparkling tea exciting. But non-alcoholic wines are currently too sweet for me."

Wine tips for fish dishes from the Bootshaus restaurant on Lake Traunsee from sommelier Katharina Gnigler

At the moment, I'm serving a 2022 Welschriesling 'Down to earth' from Michaela Riedmüller , Carnuntum, Austria, with raw char marinated with black radish, a little camomile, ginger and buttermilk sauce

The wine was bottled unfiltered and therefore brings a little more pressure to the palate, which harmonises with the black radish. The freshness of the wine complements the subtle spiciness of the ginger. The herbal spiciness of the grape variety harmonises with the camomile in the dish.

A strong Riesling goes well with smoked eel

Restaurant Bootshaus

Smoked eel with potato brandade, celeriac pickled in salt, wild garlic capers and a sheep's whey broth

The slight ripeness of the 2016 Riesling Wiebelsberg GC by Marc Kreydenweiss from Alsace plays around the earthy flavours of smoked eel and celeriac. The positive opulence of this great Alsace Riesling has enough power to keep up with the sheep's milk whey. The flavours of the grape variety tease out the freshness of the wild garlic capers.

Crayfish harmonise with powerful champagne

Joerg Lehmann

Crayfish from the Traun grilled on charcoal with juniper

Katharina Gnigler serves the ADN de Meunier Blanc de Noirs champagne from Christophe Mignon with this dish. This champagne, which grows on the marly clay and limestone soils of the Vallée de la Marne, brings with it a complex and full-bodied variety of flavours of exoticism, but also flint. It therefore harmonises well with grilled crayfish and underlines the smoky flavours and spiciness of juniper with its tingle.

Goes well with smoked fish with parsley Sauvignon Blanc

Restaurant Bootshaus

Smoked fish - twice parsley, elderflower capers & Topaz apple

2022 Sancerre Mosaique Calcaire, Claude Riffault, Loire

This wine is matured partly in steel tanks and partly in concrete vats. This gives it more structure. The crystalline, taut style of this Sauvignon Blanc accompanies the only slightly smoky fish. The herbaceous flavours of the wine find favour with the parsley, which was used as a root and as parsley greens in the dish. The mineral structure and the acid-fruit framework are accompanied by elderberry capers and apple, which bring a lovely freshness to the dish.

Viognier unites all the components of the dish

Joerg Lehmann

Reinanke, Jerusalem artichoke scales, barley koji, wild spinach, pickled sea buckthorn

2022 Viognier de Rosine, Domaine Stéphane Ogier , Northern Rhône

I find the white wines of the Rhône Valley go very well with rather rich fish such as carp, eel or pike. In this case, we have the earthiness of Jerusalem artichokes, the umami flavour of koji, the slightly tart earthiness of spinach and the acidity of sea buckthorn. The Viognier - in this case not overwhelmed by the alcohol - unites all the components of the dish, making it harmonious and pleasing. The moderate acidity of the grape variety also matches the sea buckthorn, which is certainly the key factor in the choice of wine in this dish.

Fried tench with potato and watercress salad and truffle mayonnaise

2020 Furmint Analogue No.3, Michael Wenzel, Rust, Austria

I love playing with and combining indigenous grape varieties. On the one hand, you can often surprise and impress guests with them, but also because these wines are usually brilliant accompaniments to food.

In this case, I opted for a Furmint, which comes from one of the "Furmint pioneers" in Austria. At the beginning, the flavours of ripe apple and pear support the salad. The honey flavours of the wine harmonise with the nutty touch that the fish brings, and the reduction of this Furmint is great fun with the truffle mayonnaise.

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