Wine Matching Masterclass, Part I: How to match wine and fish

Drinks: Wines

In the first of our new three-part series on the basics of food and wine matching, Hakkasan’s Christine Parkinson tells you everything you need to know about wines to pair with fish

You could spend a lifetime tasting wine and food together to see what works, but a few general principles will get you going straight away. Fish is a good place to start: it’s on nearly every menu, and there are some classic recipes that keep on turning up again and again. There’s no need to reach for the house white either: if you stick to some simple guidelines you can sell both your top-end whites and some quirkier bottles, not to mention sherry, rosé and even red wine.

The best place to start is with the type of fish you’re serving: is it ‘white’ or ‘oily’, mild or strong-tasting? The first principle of matching wine and food is to match the intensity of flavour.

Creamy sauces

Once you add a creamy sauce to fish (or make a fish pie), the equation changes. The sauce coats your tongue and you need a wine with more body. Acidity is important, as creamy sauces can tire your taste buds and the wine must be refreshing.

THE WINE An unoaked New World Chardonnay is perfect, provided you find one with that vital acidity. Other good choices include Grüner Veltliner or Australian Riesling. Although we’re talking about fish, it’s really the sauce that dictates which wine to serve, so the same rules apply to a creamy pasta or even cauliflower cheese.

CHRISTINE PICKS… Botalcura Chardonnay La Porfia 2005, Casablanca Valley, Chile with creamy sauces.

White fish and lobster (plus some sashimi)

White fish and lobster have a mild, delicate flavour and they require a wine that’s fairly neutral. Muscadet or Verdicchio are two ideal wines to recommend, especially if the fish is served steamed or poached.

THE WINE This is a golden opportunity to sell a decent bottle of Chablis (or any other unoaked white Burgundy) if your customer wants to trade up. If the fish is pan-fried or grilled, however, it will acquire more flavour, which means you can offer a richer wine. What’s more, anything grilled tends to have a more savoury taste (there’s more ‘umami’), and that means an oaked wine will work well with it. Think Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault.

CHRISTINE PICKS… Lupé-Cholet Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume 2005, France with white fish and lobster.

Deep-fried fish

Fatty foods need crisp wines, so if fish is deep-fried, your wine will need serious acidity. It also helps to serve the wine really cold, as deep-fried food holds heat incredibly well.

THE WINE For the ultimate match try brut champagne with fish and chips. The combination of crunchy batter, hot, moist fish and cold, dry, fizzy wine is fantastic. For a cheaper option, try a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and for a left-field choice you can’t go wrong with a dry Furmint from Hungary. The same wines would do a great job with other deep-fried foods too, such as tempura.

CHRISTINE PICKS… Seifried Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Nelson, New Zealand with deep-fried fish and chips.

Oily fish

Oily fish such as salmon and tuna, as well as fishcakes, most shellfish and crab, have a more robust flavour (and often texture). The wine needs to have bit more character, too, so that it doesn’t get lost. It also needs plenty of acidity to cut through the fattiness of the fish.

THE WINE Sancerre is the classic choice, but for something more adventurous try a crisp Verdejo. Once again you can step up a gear if the fish is seared or cooked on a barbeque: try dry fino sherry perhaps, or even a red wine. Yes, red wine really does work with fish: just make sure it has soft tannins, or you’ll get a metallic taste. Australian Pinot Noir or a young Valpolicella would be just the ticket.

CHRISTINE PICKS… Fournier Père et Fils Sancerre les Pierriers 2007, France with oily fish; Cave des Vignerons de Bel Air Beaujolais Villages 2007, France with seared oily fish.

Lemon or vinegar

Lemon and vinegar are often added to fish, and they can be a complicating factor. Most of the time they’re just a garnish or seasoning, so there’s no need to worry, but with dishes such as soused mackerel or ceviche they become the dominant flavour.

THE WINE This can be tricky territory for wine, but the answer is a richer wine, with a strong character. It’s a bit like the reverse of the ‘crisp wines with fatty food’ rule. The food is now acidic, so the wine needs a bit of ‘fat’. A big, single-vineyard Soave or an Alsace Pinot Gris will stand up to all the acid and still have plenty of flavour. For a New World option a Viognier would do just fine.

CHRISTINE PICKS… Las Moras Viognier 2008, San Juan, Argentina for fish with lemon or vinegar.

Smoked fish

The final factor to c
onsider with fish is whether it’s smoked. There’s a simple trick to remember, regardless of whether it’s smoked salmon, smoked haddock or richly flavoured smoked eel: choose a slightly fruitier version of the style of wine that would work with the same fish unsmoked.

THE WINE Bearing in mind the above, for poached haddock go for a fruity New World Chardonnay instead of Chablis, or a decent Pinot Grigio instead of Muscadet.


Even though sherry is low in acidity, it can easily do the job of a crisp white wine. The tanginess of a fino or manzanilla works brilliantly as a great contrast to fatty, rich or sweet dishes.

Fish and wine in a nutshell

  • The stronger the flavour of the food, the more character and intensity a wine needs
  • Oily, fatty or fried foods need wines with high acidity
  • Creamy sauces need wines with body as well as acidity
  • Oaky whites work best with food with a savoury, ‘umami’ character

Thank you to Chalié Richards for supplying the wines.
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Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009

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