Seafood dishes are an integral part of the cuisine in the Cayman Islands. Jacques Scott’s Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle discussed which wines pair well with different kinds of seafood dishes over a lunch at Morgan’s Harbour Restaurant in West Bay.
As recently as two decades ago, there were some generally accepted rules for pairing wines with food: Fish was paired with white wine and meat was paired with red wine. But rules, as some will say, are made to be broken.
“The white with fish and red with meat rule no longer applies,” says Jacques Scott’s Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle. “It still has some merit, but there are lots of other options out there that can work.”
The change in wine-pairing philosophy has occurred not so much because wines have changed – although there is a larger variety of wines available commercially than ever before – but because cooking styles have evolved.
In years past, seafood dishes were prepared in a limited number of ways and made with limited numbers of sauces, most of which involved butter, cream, lemon and even white wine.
When the majority of seafood dishes were prepared in this manner, white wines were generally the best pairing options. These days, however, chefs have become much more creative in their preparation of seafood dishes.
“It’s not only the base ingredients, sometimes it is the sauce and the way it’s prepared,” says Royle.
Some types of fish, for example, are commonly served grilled or blackened and sauces can have red-wine or mushroom bases.
“Sauces and the way seafood is prepared brings different characteristics to the dish and opens up the wine-pairing possibilities,” says Royle.
However, knowing which seafood dishes pair well with specific wines requires a little bit of knowledge about the wine.
To get an idea of why certain dishes go better with certain wines, Royle opened six different bottles of wine – four whites and two reds – and tried them over a four-course seafood lunch at Morgan’s Harbour.
Acid with acid
Acid is an essential ingredient in all wines, an element that not only gives them structure and balance, but also acts as a preservative. Without acid, wine would spoil rather quickly. Without acid, wine would seem oily and unctuous in the mouth – or “flabby” in wine lingo. Acid gives wines a refreshing and somewhat tart taste.
Different wines have different levels of acidity. When pairing food dishes with a lot of acidity, it’s usually a good idea to pick an acidic wine.
It’s true that opposites can sometimes attract in food pairings, but those pairings are usually specific to certain kinds of dishes – for instance a sweeter wine with spicy Asian-flavoured food is a classic pairing.
When Morgan’s Harbour served fresh tuna ceviche marinated in citrus juice, with mandarin orange pieces, Royle and bartender Gerald Fischer were pretty sure they knew which of the selected wines would go best with it: Trimbach Pinot Blanc (Retail price: $22.99).
Although medium bodied with a relatively low 12.45 per cent alcohol content, the Pinot Blanc was full of fruity acidity, allowing it to mesh well with the high acidity and fruitiness of the dish.
Another pairing that was excellent with the ceviche was Moulin de Gassac Picpout de Pinet (Retail: $19.99). This wine is from an ancient, lesser-known grape called “piquepoul”, which literally translates to “stings the lip” – a nod to its high acidity. Although this wine is relatively new to Cayman, it’s a favourite of Jacques Scott’s wine sales associate Sarah Howard.
“I think it’s a crowd-pleasing white that is fresh and delightful and should be enjoyed in the sunshine,” she says of the Picpoul de Pinet, which is a good, everyday wine for Cayman’s climate.
Two white wines that didn’t go very well with the ceviche was the Hugel Gewürztraminer (Retail: $22.99), an off-dry, low-acidity wine, and Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (Retail: $56.99).
“Gewürztraminer is a low-acid grape and the wine can’t stand up to the acid in the dish,” Royle notes.
Although the Chardonnay had good acidity, its full-bodied alcohol content and oak aging overpowered the flavours in the ceviche.
Neither of the red wines, Parallele 45 Côtes du Rhône (Retail: $15.99) and Flowers Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (Retail: $58.99) were good pairing with the uncooked fish dish, even though Pinot Noir is a red wine with high acidity.
In this case, the red-fruit flavours of red wine just didn’t blend well with the citrusy flavours of ceviche.
“Red wine makes the raw fish taste like canned tuna,” Royle says. “But I think if the fish was grilled, maybe it would pair well.”
To explore the differences that dish preparation can have on a wine pairing, Morgan’s Harbour served the same tuna it had served in the ceviche, but this time as sashimi with a full-flavoured soy, ginger, sesame seed dressing.
This time, the Trimbach Pinot Blanc didn’t work, not because of its acidity, but because its delicate flavours and medium body couldn’t stand up to the strong flavours of the dish.
However, the Hugel Gewürztraminer, with its residual sweetness, offset the spicy ginger and salty soy to pair very well.
Although the pairing with the two red wines wasn’t ideal, it was much better with the sashimi than it was with the ceviche, even though the main ingredient was still raw tuna.
Strength with strength
Next, Morgan’s Harbour served grilled prawns with a garlic, scotch bonnet butter sauce. Here, there was no doubt as to which wine paired best: The Flowers Chardonnay.
“When you have a dish with these strong flavours, you need a wine with weight … a wine that can stand up to it,” Royle says. The full-bodied, textured Flowers Chardonnay did just that.
Many Gewürztraminers wines are low in alcohol content, but the Hugel is relatively high – 13.85 per cent – which gave it enough body to stand up to the spicy shrimp dish. In addition, wines with some residual sugar, like Gewürztraminer, are often good with spicy dishes, helping to cool the mouth from the heat.
Reds with fish
When it comes to shellfish, raw or cooked, the safe pairing will always be white wines. However, when it comes to fish, preparation is most important.
“It comes down to how it’s made,” says Royle. “Is it grilled, blackened, steamed, pan-fried or poached? That’s something I learned in sommelier school; it’s not always about the wine.”
To illustrate this concept, Morgan’s Harbour served fresh grouper prepared two ways: pan fried and blackened. All six of the wines paired reasonably well.
Of the reds, the Flowers Pinot Noir – an elegant, well-made wine with berry flavours and earthy minerality – proved a nice match for the simple flavours of the fish.
But once the blackening preparation was added to the mix, the dish brought out peppery flavours in the Parallele 45 Côtes du Rhône that made for a very good pairing.
When pairing red wines with fish, Royle says sauces and seasonings are often what sommeliers look at when trying to make a pairing. However, he also says it’s also important to look at the tannins levels of the wine.
“If you’re trying to pair fish with red wine, you really have to start with a wine with low tannins, with the exception maybe of monkfish,” he says, noting that both of the red wines on the table, Pinot Noir and Côtes du Rhône were low-tannin wines.