Red wine with fish used to be the most embarrassing thing guests could order in a restaurant. Those days are over, but the topic remains difficult. Now the formula is: The right red wine with the right recipe. Matthias Stelzig has learnt insider tips from three top London sommeliers.
In a brick vault under the railway embankment, the restaurant "The Sea The Sea" is located next to a yoga school and a virtual reality shop. Above, Overground trains rattle into the suburbs. It is one of the trendiest restaurants in East London: inside, the guests sit on orange-coloured leather stools around a circular counter made of black stone. The waiter serves large plates of visually minimalist fish dishes.
Whether it's mackerel with miso or lobster terrine, two or three ingredients are always clearly recognisable. "The product takes centre stage for us," explains sommelier Pedro Abreu. The hip clientele who enjoy the food here want pure fish. Fresh tuna, monkfish or turbot. "We don't use many spices," he emphasises. Is it difficult to pair such dishes with red wine? "Not necessarily," says Abreu, "the wines just shouldn't be too concentrated. Zweigelt or Blaufränkisch from Austria, for example, go well."
The sommelier likes to serve these wines with intense-flavoured sauces in particular. With grilled turbot with fermented red peppers or ice wine vinegar from Canada, he also finds a playground for unusual red wines. "Caiño from Rías Baixas, for example, goes well with many fish dishes." Like Pedro Abreu, the old variety comes from the north of Portugal, has good acidity and is often vinified with carbonic maceration. For him, this suits it perfectly: "It makes it crisp and fresh." It could also be an espumante made from the red Baga variety. The sparkling wine complements the flavours of the dish with aromas of wild berries.
He has many good ideas, and yet almost every classic fish recipe calls for white wine. The delicate protein of fish clashes violently with the red wine tannin. If you serve heavy Syrah, Cabernet or even Tannat with it, you might as well be chewing on a few old copper coins, it tastes so metallic. The usual accompanying flavours also quickly fall by the wayside with red wine: rice, dill and lemon, tarragon, saffron, cream and crème fraîche are simply not good partners for strong tannins. Not to mention oysters. Anything with an iodised taste of the sea - such as raw prawns - wants to swim in white wine with a lot of chalky minerality. Chablis, champagne or a fine Silvaner from Franconia - it doesn't get much better than this.
However, many traditional fish dishes in red wine regions have always been accompanied by the regional red wine. A Sicilian would almost always choose a red wine to accompany "tonno" (tuna). Bacalhão (stockfish) is a national treasure in Portugal. In the north, it is often baked with olive oil, garlic, potatoes and black olives. It calls for a red wine from the Dão or Douro. A well-known Spanish saying goes: the best white wine is a red wine. That's why no older gourmet would think of asking for a white wine to accompany the fish stew zarzuela. Naturally, Catalans swear by a Bobal red wine from Valencia to accompany their favourite prawns in paella. The roasted flavours of the shellfish in particular are a great combination.
In the French holiday resort of Arcachon near Bordeaux, oyster tourists are usually served Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Farmers and oyster producers, on the other hand, are often seen with a glass of red wine in their hands, tanned by wind and weather. Waiters in country restaurants roll their eyes when yet another foreigner carefully orders a glass of white wine to accompany the traditional fish dish "lamproie à la bordelaise". After all, the lamprey is cooked in blood and Bordeaux - and it comes with it too. Et c'est tout! And what do connoisseurs in Provence drink with bouillabaisse? Not a trendy rosé, but a powerful red.
"The pairing results primarily from the recipe," explains Yuri Nemkoff. "Fish marinated in the sauce develops intense flavours, especially from dark, smoky sauces like in Chinese cuisine." In this case, he recommends: Nerello Mascalese. "The multi-layered wines from Mount Etna are not too heavy and maintain a good balance," he explains. Nemkoff's workplace is the Noble Palace restaurant in the St James's Park neighbourhood near Buckingham Palace. The cuisine is "inspired by the emperors of the last dynasty" and is enhanced with modern extras. These include Scottish lobster as well as beluga caviar and stuffed Japanese abalone.
"In Chinese cuisine," says Yuri, "many dishes go well with red wine. Tuna tartare is a good choice." With Beaujolais, for example, preferably a Brouilly, the southernmost cru vineyard in the region. His experience with it: "The guests like the wildness of it." Yuri Nemkoff remembers his visits to Germany, Assmannhausen and the Rheingau. "I walked for kilometres along the Rhine and tasted Pinot Noir." Pinot Noir from Germany with fish dishes? German wine fans like to hear that. "It's important that the wines aren't too powerful," explains the sommelier, "they have to have a lot of fruit and a driving acidity." This is exactly the case with many German Pinot Noir wines - and this is what creates the right drinking flow.
Central European river fish such as trout, pikeperch, char, eel and carp are also perfect for pairing with red wine. In addition to Pinot Noir, Lemberger and Sankt Laurent also go well with them. Or a good Trollinger. But only if the preparation makes it possible.
His colleague Mateusz Kowalczyk therefore adds a question to the recommendation: "Do I want harmony or contrast? Chardonnay, champagne and Sancerre round off many fish recipes harmoniously, while a cool red offers contrast." And this can work perfectly with food, as the head sommelier of the restaurant Kai Mayfair knows. Schlossallee is named after the neighbourhood of the same name in the English-language version of Monopoly. The restaurant is located between embassies and luxury boutiques and also boasts a Michelin star for its Chinese-European cuisine.
"First of all, I ask myself: what's in the dish?" explains sommelier Kowalczyk, "which components, which spices?" Fish and seafood are always just one element of several. "Grilled sea bass with roasted flavours, especially with spicy ingredients, is a good base for red wine." Pinots Noirs are also his favourites, preferably from a cooler region of Burgundy such as Santenay.
Gambas with wasabi is a signature dish at Kai Mayfair, prepared with mango, chilli and a mayonnaise made to a secret recipe. He serves Valpolicella from a Bertani single vineyard with it, as well as a lighter, ripe Cabernet Sauvignon from California. Or a Nebbiolo from the Langhe. "But no Barolo, it's too heavy," he says, narrowing down the selection. The sommelier spontaneously lists a few of his red fish recommendations: Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Joven or Crianza red wines from Rioja, for example from Vina Tondonia or from the cool Sierra Cantabria from Murrieta and Riscal.
Both sommeliers remain relaxed when it comes to such unusual combinations. Sommelier Kowalczyk reports that this could also be due to the clientele: "Our guests are getting younger and younger, they want to have fun and spend a lot of money." They order what they fancy - and not what the sommelier recommends. This also makes his work much freer: "Life is too short to read the same book over and over again." With this willingness to experiment, there are still many exciting combinations to be discovered with fish and red wine.