Pairing wine with fish or seafood can be daunting. Yes, white wines are generally the right choice -- but which ones? Choose a dry white when you need a full-bodied, lush wine and you will be disappointed. What about seafood with heavy sauces, like barbecue or tomato sauce? Do you use the same wine with grilled shrimp that you do with lobster Thermidor? It can all be confusing. Here are some quick rules and a few "go-to" wines I reach for whenever I am serving seafood. Don't worry if you can't get the exact wine here -- these are general rules, and as we all know, rules are made to be broken.
1. Champagne, Prosecco, Cava
Sparkling wine, whether it's from California, France, Spain or Italy, is spot-on perfect for fried food. I list this one first because most of us love fried seafood, and while light beers match up well with fried seafood, most wines lose something when you pair them with tempura or a thick beer batter. Not so with sparkling wine, whose bubbles cut through the weight of fried food as if the wines were made for the dish. These wines also pair well with caviar. Don't like sparkling wine? Try a Portuguese vinho verde.
2. Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio
These are the aristocrats of white fish wines. Dry, austere and crisp, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Grigio are the wines I reach for when I am serving lean, white fish cooked simply. Flounder, halibut, walleye, snapper, raw clams or oysters all do well with these wines. Alternately, you can use these wines to cut through the natural fat in some fish, such as striped bass, catfish, lobster, shrimp or mussels. Looking for something off the beaten track that fits this style? Try an Italian Vermentino or a Greek Assyrtiko.
3. Chardonnay, Fume Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Gris
This is the realm of the fuller whites. Oaky Chardonnay gets a bad rap these days, but I love it with striped bass, crab, raw oysters -- even lobster. The theory here is to match a full-bodied wine with a full bodied dish. If you have a broth-based soup, such as she-crab soup, Chardonnay works wonderfully. If you have a fish that's a little oilier, such as bluefish or mackerel, try Pinot Gris or Viognier, or an Italian Grillo.
4. Marsanne, Roussane, Riesling, Gewurztraminer
These are even fuller whites that often have some lingering sweetness to them. I go for these wines with Asian seafood or anything spicy. Gewurztraminer is especially good with the zingy Vietnamese seafoods I eat often, and the tropical aromas of Roussane and Marsanne, which are Rhone white varietals, marry perfectly with the flavors of Asia.
5. Albarino, Verdelho
These varietals are from Spain and Portugal, but are increasingly being grown in California. There's something about them that makes these wines absolutely perfect with shellfish: clams, mussels, scallops as well as crab and lobster. It is rare that I will not open an Albarino when I eat clams or scallops.
6. Dry Fino Sherry
I split this one out because it is the perfect wine with simply cooked shrimp. Period, end of story. If you eat a lot of shrimp cocktail, steamed, grilled, stir-fried or sauteed shrimp, this is the drink to go with it. Be sure to buy real Spanish dry fino sherry, which is achingly dry and slightly salty. Tip: This wine marries well with almonds, too.
7. Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sangiovese, Grenache
Basically this is the light red wine category. There are precious few instances where you'd want a big red with seafood, but light reds do quite well with salmon, tuna, marlin, swordfish, mackerel, bluefish or other fatty, meaty, big-flavored fish. I love a Chianti -- which is mostly Sangiovese -- with spaghetti and clam sauce or octopus stewed in tomato sauce. Be careful though: Avoid combining reds with spicy seafood, as you will probably get a nasty metallic taste.
8. Roses and Other Blush wines
Kind of a 'tweener of a wine. I will serve Spanish, French or California roses when the sauce is heavier than what I want for a white, but not quite right for a full-on red. Roses can substitute for full-bodied whites such as Chardonnay and Fume Blanc. I use them a lot in summer, too, when I am grilling swordfish or tuna steaks. Rose is also a good choice with a tomato-based seafood soup, such as cioppino or zuppa da pesce.