I have been very lucky in my life to have lived in what in my opinion are two of the best seafood capitols of the U.S. I was born and raised in New England where lobster is king, and the second half of my life in the Pacific Northwest, where crab, salmon, halibut are fantastic. Now please don’t get me wrong, many other areas of the country have some great seafood going on, I’m just saying for me, this is my experience. I will say that I have spent so much time in New Orleans eating crawdads that I might want to add that to my list of homes!
My early years in New England and experience with wines was oh so limited, because let’s face it, I wasn’t living in “wine country” like I am now. Growing up there were three kinds of wine that showed up at the dinner table during holidays, Lambrusco, Gallo, and maybe if lucky, a California Chardonnay. As I got older, and married with a developing taste and some interest in wines, whether it was crab, lobster or striper blues, you can rest assured that Chardonnay became my wine of choice. I remember very clearly the name Kendall Jackson on my labels if I could find it. Those early years the phrase “just pour me a white” became the norm.
Then in the late 1980’s I relocated to the West Coast, San Diego to be exact, with a company that had me traveling from the Hawaiian Islands to San Francisco, Seattle and Alaska. And when I say San Francisco, let me be clear, every trip there included a side adventure to Napa / Sonoma. It wasn’t long before my knowledge and taste buds became well educated in high quality wines and seafood. I quickly learned that different seafood required, or so I was told, specific wines, and in some and many cases could actually be a red. Now who would have figured on that!
So, let’s talk about Chardonnay and what it pairs well with and why. To begin with, you either have Chardonnay aged in oak or stainless steel, and that can really make a difference on how it tastes with seafood. I find that with an oaked Chardonnay, and not to heavy on the oak, will pear nicely with most salmon dishes. However, my personal choice in most cases, since moving to the West Coast, and especially Oregon, is going to be Pinot Noir, if I find the right one on the wine list.
When it comes to seafood dishes like crab, oysters, scallops and light white fish like halibut, I almost always go with an un-oaked, Chardonnay aged in stainless steel, and if I can select one with a “buttery” finish, all the better. Now keep in mind that there are other whites out there that will pare well with much seafood and some particularly better than others. I am always one to try something new, especially on the palate and in the stomach. Don’t be afraid to try something new with a dish, especially when recommended by someone. You may find a winning combination that you can’t live without.
Case in point, my wife and I fish in Alaska every other year for Silver Salmon on the Kenai River, and Halibut in the bay, and bring back 200 lbs of frozen filets every time. We have always had some favorites to pair with each, but found ourselves trying different wines with our delicious, melt in your mouth halibut. We had tried Chardonnays and Pinot Gris from many wine regions of the world. And then we found Gruener Veltliner from a very specific winery in Oregon, by the name of Rustle Vineyard, in Roseburg, Oregon.
Now I had tasted Gruener Veltliner when I was in Austria and other parts of Europe, but I wasn’t aware that it was being produced here in the United States, but since discovering it at this winery, I have that vines and wines are being produced in five Oregon wineries, with excellent results. There is just something about the Gruner Veltliner, and its minerality, fruit overtones and flavors that when you pair it with halibut brings a smile to your face and the knowledge that you have found the ultimate pairing. Needless to say, my wife now insists that I have no less than a case of Gruner Veltliner in my wine cellar at all times, and believe me, I don’t want to know what will happen to me if I don’t !
Now if your taste buds rebel if you try a Gruener and you want something a little milder to pair with your white fish or shrimp, you need to jump on one of the awesome Sauvignon Blanc’s or Pinot Gris out there, and don’t forget Chenin Blanc. I have recently been really into Sauvignon Blanc, with a few of my favorite Oregon wineries producing some that will rival the Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, who in my opinion produce some of the best in the world. Almost every Sauvignon Blanc I try tastes different, picking up the conditions in which it was grown, but recently another producer in Oregon, Melrose Vineyards, released a Sauvignon Blanc that rivals my all time favorite, Kim Crawford from New Zealand, for this wine.
Pairing tuna, swordfish and salmon with a wine is like most seafood, a matter of personal taste and choice, but there are some basic guidelines. Big bold reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are really to overpowering for fish dishes, because remember, you want the wine to complement the dish not overpower it. In most cases a nice lighter Pinot Noir will pair just fine with most of these dishes, but you do have other choices. Today there are more and more wineries producing some fine Rose’s or “blush” wines, or even a fine “Sparkling Wine” like a Gloria Farrer from Sonoma, California or if you can spring for the bucks, good Champagne from France, Spain or Italy. Also, these sparkling wines pair well with fried seafood, like beer battered shrimp or fish. If you really want a red wine but on the lighter side, there is always the Grenache or Sangiovese that will pair with dishes like salmon, mackerel or blues.
Another seafood meal choice is when dining at a Vietnamese, Chinese or Thai restaurant, and ordering maybe a spicy shrimp dish. This is where you might want to look at the wine list, and instead of ordering that “un-filtered Sake”, try one of the Rieslings or a Gewurztraminer on the list. That mild sweetness will work very well with the heat you might find in their cuisine.
Let’s face it, when it comes to seafood and wine pairing, most of us that give recommendations agree for the most part on our suggestions. It’s probably because we spend many years tasting thousands of wines and finding ones that we feel balance out and enhance the enjoyment of the food we pair it with. On most coasts and some inland areas of the U.S. you can find Seafood and Wine Festivals, like the Newport, Oregon and Astoria, Oregon festivals, where you can try seafood’s with different wines yourself. It’s all about you, and what tastes good to you. But believe me, when you find that one wine that you sip before, during and after a mouthful of fresh crab, that makes that crab “pop”, you will know what I’m talking about.
Cheers and Bon Appetite! - Gary W. Peterson, Wine Consultant