The Vinous-Maritime Equation: Tips for Pairing Wine and Seafood

The azure blue waters of the Pacific, calming breezes and slack key music, and a sunset dinner complete with the day's fresh catch and a glass of wine to pair. But what fish? And what wine? These answers can be surprisingly elusive.

With an abundance of fresh seafood in the Pacific waters surrounding the islands, Hawaii’s culinary traditions have naturally focused on the generous assortment of the region's oceanic offerings. Quintessential Hawaiian dishes, such as grilled tako (octopus), poke, garlic or coconut shrimp, lomi Salmon, and steamed fish are common at every family potluck and beach picnic. With such a diversity of textures and flavors, wine pairings can be correspondingly diverse. Finding the right match is not always an elementary task.

This month’s Veritas Wine Club at Tchin Tchin Bar, led by Tiffany, our spirited and capable sommelier, sought to provide a few basic wine and seafood pairing tips, utilizing items easily found at any local market.  

To stay on theme, I offer a few wine and seafood pairing tips of my own before we turn to this month’s lineup and find out what the Tchin Tchin gang brought to the table. So climb aboard, we'll search for pairings on every shore.

Tip #1: Know Thy Ingredients

Pairing wine and seafood by the dish’s ingredients can ensure complementary flavor profiles.

Ingredients are essential to wine pairing considerations because they contribute unique flavors and aromas to the overall dish. Some are subtle, others strong; all are important. Understanding these tasty constituents is critical to achieving the optimal complementary beverage. The below table is a summation of basic wine pairings for our topic’s key ingredient:

While the above table can be helpful in commencing your pairing due diligence, remember that the investigation shouldn’t stop there. The panoply of ingredients can be equally (or more) influential in the final wine pairing.

Tip #2: Consider Cooking Methods

Is your fish grilled, steamed, or raw? Some cooking methods will provide little additional flavor to a dish, thereby showcasing its ingredients, while others may impart unique flavors to the final product. And in some cases, (e.g., sashimi) your seafood may not be cooked at all. Either way, it is important to consider cooking methods (or lack thereof) when selecting your wine pairing.

Knowing the method of cooking may adjust your wine selection, even if, in terms of ingredients, you were initially confident in your perfect pairing. Cooking methods have the potential to infuse a plethora of additional flavors to a dish. In some cases, these flavors may end up shifting the wine pairing analysis entirely. While there is no cooking method that is intrinsically better or worse than another, for pairing purposes it is critical to understand the various cooking methods and how they may influence a dish.

At the risk of over-simplification, cooking techniques can be broadly viewed as either low-impact or high impact.

Low-impact methods, such as poaching, boiling and steaming, do not impart much of their own flavors. These techniques instead afford a clean flavor that allow the fresh, vibrant ingredients to shine. Among this group, steaming is perhaps the most commonly utilized seafood preparation technique.

For higher-impact cooking methods, such as grilling, frying, broiling and smoking, the technique supplements the profile with its own unique flavor compounds and sensory experiences. Some of these added flavors and sensations include smokiness, crunchy oily textures, and that wonderful charred taste that comes off the grill and is infused with smoked charcoal characteristics.

If no additional ingredients are being added, how are these flavor compounds being created? My wonkish tendencies are prompted. Buckle up, it's about to get scientific.

Playing with Fire: Mr. Maillard and His Mysterious Flavor Reaction

One of the key distinctions between low- and high-impact cooking techniques is the use of heat to induce chemical reactions that affect flavor composition. The primary chemical reaction responsible for these flavor compositions is known as the Maillard Reaction, named after French chemist and physician Louis-Camille Maillard, who, in 1912, first hypothesized that there was a specific chemical reaction responsible for the way raw ingredients, when exposed to heat, changed color and produced carbon dioxide. Although his original studies were directed toward medical discoveries, it turned out that this hypothesis was especially relevant in the culinary context. Medicine? Important. Explaining why cooked food is delicious? Paramount.

The Maillard Reaction posits that high heat causes amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) to react with certain types of reducing sugars (e.g., glucose and fructose) to create thousands of new, distinct flavor compounds. Surface temperatures must be hot - really hot - exceeding 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature requirement explains why low-impact cooking methods, and in particular those involving water (which has a boiling point of 212 degrees Fahrenheit) do not initiate the Maillard Reaction. They simply aren’t hot enough.

[Okay, for the science geeks out there, this is a slight simplification, but just go with it; I don't want to draft a treatise].

With sufficient heat, proteins and sugars, these chemical reactions produce hundreds of new flavor compounds that create the rich, savory notes and aromas that are associated with high-impact cooking methods, such as roasting, grilling and frying. When promiscuous little molecules get heated, there is a party in your pan. These compounds in turn break down to form even more new flavor compounds. The pan party continues with proliferating flavor compounds. The reaction is often colloquially referred to as the browning reaction, or more simply, browning, due to its visual effect on the meat. Browning your meet on the stove or charring it to perfection on the grill? Raise the tongs to Mr. Maillard, who paved the flavorful path.

All that to say, pay particular attention to the cooking method. For low-impact methods like steaming, you can focus on ingredients, sauces and condiments to dictate wine selection. For high-impact cooking techniques, it is wise to consider what additional flavor profiles and sensations they may proffer before making any final decision.

Tip #3: A bit saucy? Sauces and condiments dictate wine pairing, every time.

Well, maybe not every time, but if a sauce is involved, it is safe to assume that it should become the primary pairing partner. Sauces vary significantly, from cold to hot, acidic and tart to creamy and rich, fruity to herbaceous. When analyzing sauces, look to the dominant taste sensation (i.e., sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami) and the level of spice.

Epicurean criterion complete. Now on to experimentation.

First Course: Fish Tacos

Domaine Fortant Sparkling Rosé, Languedoc, France

First up, fish tacos with pickled radish, cucumber and a red wine demi-glace. Sweet meets savory with a little kick from the spice to remind you that it is indeed taco time.

For this dish, Tip #1 is in full force and effect. Know thy ingredients. With some spice and mild heat added to the mix (they are tacos, after all), the Tchin Tchin crew relied upon some bubbles and fruit to balance the palate. Sparkling fruit-forward wines can be very compatible with exotic spices and flavor profiles, and act to tame the heat of a dish. In this case, the NV Domaine Fortant Sparkling Rosé from Languedoc, France was more than suitable for the task. Fresh, vibrant, ripe red fruit of strawberry and raspberry jump off the palate, with accents of lemon rind and minerals. Pairing good. Wine better. The evening’s vinous champion.

Musings by the Glass - Tips for Pairing Wine and Seafood - Domaine Fortant Sparkling Rose Languedoc France

Second Course: Crab and Avocado Bruschetta

2016 Innocent Bystander Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand

The crab was boiled and prepared as lump crab salad with fresh bell pepper, avocado and green onion, and served on a lightly-toasted bruschetta. No sauce and a low-impact cooking method results in a focus on the key ingredients. Sometimes the process of elimination works wonders.

Reviewing the above table narrows the crab pairing options to a manageable few. To complement the fresh vegetal flavors, and in particular the bell pepper, the gang offered a 2016 Innocent Bystander Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. Characteristic of the region and varietal, this was a powerfully aromatic wine with notes of starfruit, grapefruit peel, durian, lemon and bell pepper. The palate expressed citrus (lemon and grapefruit) and tropical fruit, and was balanced with crisp, zesty acidity. Overall a decent wine made better by the pairing.

Third course: Torched Salmon with Spiced Barbecue Rub

2015 J. Vineyards Pinot Noir, California

There are few time-honored traditions of pairing seafood with red wine. Salmon and Pinot Noir fits this rather unique profile, brilliantly.

This particular salmon course was torched with a spicy barbecue rub and garnished with raspberry. The torched cooking technique is excellent for a flash Maillard Reaction, and all its wonderful flavor compounds, that simultaneously leaves the fish mostly raw.  In a sense, the chef gets the best of both worlds, with fresh uncooked flavors from the salmon combining with additional charred flavors from the browned exterior. You will often see this technique with fish preparations in particular. And besides, who doesn't want to play with a kitchen torch?

The barbecue rub was an unnecessarily complicating factor, considering that this dish was intended specifically for wine pairing. Adding spice would inevitably conflict with a red wine that contained even a modicum of tannins and higher alcohol. Heat desires a white wine with abiding sweetness, while the rich, oily salmon prefers that lighter bodied red with high acidity, low tannins and a balanced earth-fruit profile.  The compatibility clash commences.

The selected Pinot Noir was the 2015 J. Vineyards Pinot Noir, blended from various regions in California. The wine has a balanced nose of red fruit (raspberry, cherry) and earthy elements, with accents of pepper and spice. The palate unexpectedly presented stronger spice and black pepper, with red fruit coming secondary. While the raspberry garnish brought out the red fruit elements from the wine, overall the wine felt racy and hot on the palate. The spiced barbecue rub added fuel to flame. Result: unpleasantness. Ultimately, the glass was left on the table without significant consumption.

I would note that, unfortunately, the sommelier was not informed that the salmon would have a spicy barbecue rub. A detail menacingly omitted. May it be a poignant lesson for readers that one element can turn the wine-pairing tide.

Notwithstanding, avoid the spicy barbecue rub and this is a classic pairing that can be consistently relied upon with good results.

Fourth Course: Fried Kaua’i Shrimp with Tōgarashi

2014 Selbach Oster ‘Ono’ Kabinett Riesling, Mosel, Germany

For the final dish of the evening, fresh Kaua’i shrimp, lightly floured, fried and dusted with shichimi tōgarashi. Tōga-what? Good question. Tōgarashi, originally an herbal medicine, is a peppery Japanese condiment that excites the palate with a unique blend of chili pepper and other ingredients. Found at most Japanese restaurants, the precise concoction varies and can be a proprietary, rigorously-protected secret. However, the general ingredients typically include a combination of red chili pepper, black pepper, sesame seeds, dried mandarin orange peel, nori, ginger powder, and poppy seeds.

For this dish, ingredients and cooking method take centerstage. Light battering and frying brought texture and added sweetness to the shrimp, while the tōgarashi provided some balancing heat. Chopped cilantro was scattered atop to bring fresh herbal elements.

The 2014 Selbach Oster ‘Ono’ Kabinett Riesling from Mosel, Germany, is produced specifically for Hawaii, and bears a logo depicting one of the most popular fish in the islands (Ono, or Wahoo). The wine expressed wonderful, alluring aromas of citrus, ripe stone fruit and tropical fruit. The palate presented concentrated fruit flavors and mineral accents in a firmly structured wine with a long, satisfyingly piquant finish. Although the course was not aggressively spicy, the added heat was beautifully tempered with the sweetness and ripe stone fruit flavors from the wine. A fantastic conclusion to the evening.

Cheers to Tiffany, our esteemed host, for her vision and expert navigation. As you move on to new and exciting adventures, know that you will be missed. Warmest aloha.

What bottle do you reach for when enjoying your fresh catch? Do you have a favorite wine and seafood pairing? Comment below; I’d love to hear your thoughts!