A Plaice in the Sun

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In the bar the other night, we got talking about wine and fish. There are loads of books about pairing wine and food and it’s a favourite subject for newspaper supplements and lifestyle magazines, especially when there’s not much else to write about.  “Ah yes,” someone interrupted, “But pairing food and wine is highly subjective.” Well, is it?  If you ask me, it’s not as subjective as some people think. I think it’s safe to say that while there are some general guidelines, it is generally a matter of common sense.

The bottom line is that you want to bring out the best in both the food and the wine. A couple of years ago, I went to an expensive restaurant for a gourmet dinner for which, I am glad to say, someone else paid. The fish course was poached Atlantic cod with an artistic vegetable sculpture, served with a glass of red. Even though the wine was light-bodied the combination didn’t work for me, because neither the fish nor the wine helped each other. Apart from that, it just looked wrong.

The Town of Soave (Photo: Zen41)The Town of Soave (Photo: Zen41)

Red wine will never work well with delicately flavoured fish like plaice or cod, because the fish will be overpowered and the flavours will clash. If you like taking risks, you could try a light red with a fully-flavoured fish. Roast salmon has a rich texture that might stand up to it. You could even try a light, dry rosé with fish, but that’s as far as I’d go towards the red end of the spectrum. But why take risks? I don’t know about you, but I like to keep things safe and simple. Life is complicated enough already.

At Berry Bros & Rudd, one of Britain’s top wine merchants, they’ve come up the best pairings for fish and wine. And there’s not a red in sight. It’s a long and detailed list, but boils down to a simple strategy which even my dogs can remember. For simple fish dishes (including fish in batter) choose a dry Italian white; for richer dishes, go for a white wine from Burgundy or Alsace. That’s basically it – if you want to keep things safe and simple.

Now you know as well as I do that in this country, wines from Burgundy and Alsace cost an arm and a leg and sometimes two of each. You’ll be lucky to pick up anything decent under Bt. 1,500. If it’s very much cheaper, either there’s something wrong with it or it’s fallen off the back of a truck. It would be lovely to drink Chablis with the hoki, or an Alsace Riesling with that fillet of plaice in cream sauce. But not at those prices, thank you. As well as Italian wines, Sauvignon Blanc works well with white fish and for richer offerings like salmon and tuna, try New World wines like Australian or Chilean Chardonnay.

Palazzo Grimani Soave 2011 (white) Italy (Bt. 500 @ Big C Extra)

If your recollections of Soave bring to mind bland whites with not much more interest than alcoholic water, refresh your memory with this new-style Soave from Palazzo Grimani. Contrary to popular belief, Soave (SWAH-veh) is not a style of wine but a place. To be more precise, it’s an attractive historical town, nestling among the hills near the A4 about 32 kilometers East of Verona. For decades, Soave has been Italy’s most popular white wine.

This one has a lovely aroma of white flowers and honey that fairly wafts out of the glass. Soave is traditionally made from 70% Garganega grapes which produce elegant wines with hints of almonds. But there’s also a honeyed, buttery aroma and I’d bet you anything that there’s a good dollop of Chardonnay in there too. It’s only 12.5% alcohol content which makes it an easy-drinker, light, dry and soft on the palate. This is a very pleasant wine and with its lingering finish, it’s something of a modern take on the “lean and clean” taste of traditional Soave. The Plain Jane of Italian whites has slapped on some make-up and tarted herself up for the ball. If you prefer your whites round and fruity, this would go well with fully-flavoured fish dishes.

Santa Helena Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (white), Chile (Bt 613 @ Big C Extra)

If you want something a bit drier and sharper, you might find Sauvignon Blanc more to your taste. Sauvignon Blanc (SOH-vihn-yon BLAHN) comes with aromas and flavours of citrus fruits, apples and pears and gets its name from the French word sauvage, meaning “wild”. In case you’re wondering, Saint Helena was evidently a native of Bithynia which is now part of Turkey. She was also the mother of Constantine the Great, or so it says on Wikipedia.  Third century Bithynian history is not one of my strong points, and so I shall have to take their word for it.

This light-bodied wine has a grassy aroma of gooseberries and tropical fruits with plenty of fruit on the taste, a hint of herbs and a good balance of acid. That zingy touch of citrus acidity would make this wine perfect for many light fish dishes. It would work well with shrimps, dory, red snapper, cod or plaice.

It would certainly add a bit of class to that traditional Friday-night British workers’ favourite – fish and chips, which nearly always uses plaice or cod and needs a light dry wine to taste at its best. French fries of course, must be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside – which is easier said than done. Local potatoes contain a lot of water and they’ll never make decent French fries, even if you try boiling them first. Use those Belgian packs of frozen French fries instead. The Belgians supposedly invented French fries, so they should know what they’re doing. By the way, some of the best French fries in South-East Asia can be found in Laos, because they’re made from small, waxy and richly flavoured potatoes that deep-fry to perfection.

If you are one of those Brits who drown your fish and chips with vinegar, don’t forget that vinegar is one of wine’s worst enemies and can make it taste awful. The fish and chips would probably go down better with a nice cup of tea.

Try these dry whites with fish too:
* Intis Chardonnay-Chenin Blanc 2011 (Argentina) Bt. 365 @ Wine Connection
* Carmen Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Chile) Bt. 619 @ Big C Extra
* The Pump Chardonnay 2011 (Australia) Bt. 385 @Big C Extra
* Castillo del Moro Airén-Sauvignon Blanc (Spain) Bt. 449 @ Wine Connection
* Hardys VR Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Australia) Bt. 599 @ Tesco-Lotus
* Kintu Chardonnay (Chile) Bt. 399 @ Tesco-Lotus
* Mont Clair Bin 6 Chardonnay (S. Africa) Bt. 300 @ 7-Eleven and others