Red Wine With Fish? The Dark Art Of Food And Wine Matching

This piece, written by David Motion, appeared first in Noble Rot Magazine Issue 2

It was an ugly stand-off in a Michelin starred restaurant just south of Dijon a decade ago. Yes, we had a small splash of Meursault left but we had also ordered a Clos Vougeot by Denis Mortet and it was open, semi-reclining in its wire frame, tantalisingly out of reach on a small table across the restaurant. My colleague and I had both ordered red mullet for our main course. I asked the young waitress who brought our mullet if she could pour us the wine from that bottle over there. She looked confused and hurried off in a panic. We heard whispering from around the corner. We waited. Our plates of mullet on their beds of finely diced ratatouille sat untouched in front of us. The Maître D’ sauntered out. He explained that Clos Vougeot is a red wine. I explained that we knew that and could he kindly pour some into our glasses? His smile turned into something more fixed. He said, “just a moment” and headed off stage left. If there had been a grandfather clock in the corner of the restaurant, we would have been able to hear the ticking and count the minutes as they passed.

Our mullet had been sitting in front of us, patiently waiting for some Clos Vougeot and cooling off for an uncomfortable length of time. The young waitress’ head had darted out periodically and there was more whispering along the lines of “they aren’t eating yet”. We were determined. We were not going to start our mullet until we had some of the wine we had ordered in our glasses. It was a stand-off. Our hearts were racing. It was both exciting and very scary.
We then heard an extended, more audible and agitated exchange off stage, now with an added third voice. It was Madame, the owner and wife of the Chef.

Minutes ticked by. Eventually Madame appeared. She stood above us with her arms folded. She did not look happy. I had to do two things. Go into charm overdrive and do some shameful name-dropping.
“We know it may not be traditional to serve red wine with fish but we recently had a remarkable experience at the house of Becky Wasserman and Russell Hone. Madame, maybe you might have heard of them? They are very well-known agents for many highly-regarded Domaines on the Côte. Anyway, a Japanese chef who owns a famous Japanese restaurant in Washington DC put on a lunch at their house. He is convinced that red Burgundy is the perfect accompaniment for fish, raw or cooked. He brought a team from his kitchen and asked Becky and Russell to invite some of their growers. Frédéric Mugnier was there, so were Bernard Dugat-Py, Annick Parent, Olivier Lamy and Nicolas Potel. There were TV producers and journalists from the States and ourselves. Everyone agreed that red Burgundy and fish was a wonderful combination. I recommend you try it yourself sometime. Please could you pour the Clos Vougeot so we can enjoy this beautifully presented red mullet?”

Madame sighed loudly (it was more of a hurrumph really) and, without saying a word, walked over to the bottle on its little altar, brought and poured us the wine. She was neither convinced nor happy. The atmosphere was even chillier than our mullet. Never mind – we finally had the Clos Vougeot in our glasses.

I like great food. I like great wine. I would rather be drinking great wine with a dish that, according to convention, it doesn’t match, than drinking a feeble wine that convention decrees is the perfect match.

I was recently in Barolo with a very good friend from the wine trade in Burgundy. He harangued me daily. “Why must you always order Barolo right away? You should do it properly; start with Roero Arneis, then a Dolcetto or a Barbera and work your way up to Barolo”. Eventually I lost my rag. “I love Barolo. I’m in Barolo. I’m going to fucking drink Barolo.” Not forgetting that there’s only so much my liver can take, so why bother putting anything less than excellent into my body?

There are some precedents. If you go to Bordeaux in summer you will see fish on every menu. They make white wine in Bordeaux. Some of it is great and much of it isn’t. Bordeaux is famous for its red wines. Look around the restaurant, look at the locals. Are they drinking white wine? Not so much. People are there to drink red wine. It’s what Bordeaux is famous for.

Still in Bordeaux, we were invited to a family lunch by a grower near Libourne. A local dish was served: lamprey cooked in red wine. Lamprey is an ugly, jawless, eel-type fish, the stuff of nightmares and reminiscent of something out of “Alien”. The Romans used to feed Christians to the vicious, razor-teethed creatures. Cooked in red Bordeaux, they are delicious. What did they serve with it? It’s fish so it should be white wine, right? Wrong; St Emilion.

A decade ago, my wife and I managed to get a table at El Bulli, back when they still did lunch. We arrived and they explained how the lunch would work. Thirteen small courses made from a wide variety of seafood, fish, vegetable and meat. We looked at the wine-list, thick with expensive Burgundy and Bordeaux. We’re in Spain, so let’s have Spanish wine. We asked our friendly, knowledgeable waiter (there didn’t seem to be a dedicated sommelier) “what do you think would work”? He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. Your guess is as good as mine. You’ll see. “So how about we order a bottle of white (Rioja) and a bottle of red (Ribera del Duero) and have both open at the same time?” Good idea.
The reality was that the food was so completely captivating, ethereal and witty that we only drank our wine between courses.

Then there is the story of a Yorkshireman who became a multi-millionaire (why a Yorkshireman?) and would drink his favourite wine, Yquem, with every meal. Fish & Chips, Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding – everything. No-one knows who this man is, or can verify that he was from Yorkshire or whether he is now diabetic, but the point is clear – you can drink whatever you like with whatever you like.

After the fundamentalism of food and wine matching there’s the strait-jacket of convention. History dictates that there is an established, conventional running order, reinforced by an irrational fear that you might get sick if you dared to drink out of sequence. Champagne first, then white, followed by red, then dessert wine, port and cognac before being carried out.

Imagine we are sitting in a fancy restaurant in, let’s say, France. I order something involving seafood to start, you go for a warm pigeon salad. For the main course you’re having fish and I’m going to have lamb. We have ordered two beautiful bottles from the wine-list, a bottle of white and a bottle of red. Almost invariably we will be served the white and only be offered the red with the main course. This makes a mockery of the white with fish/red with meat convention. In this case another convention has taken precedence – that red must follow white. This seems hypocritical when, if you order Foie Gras it’s OK to hoover up a glass or two of Sauternes – and this is the starter.

Here’s a tip which may be useful if you think you have walked into this ultra-conservative restaurant. Order red first. Once it’s in your glasses, order white. Your sommelier will look confused and disorientated, but it’s a small price to pay. You have outmanoeuvred him or her and now have everything you need in front of you. Red and white wine on the table at the same time. Dinner is looking good.

Of course certain wines work particularly well with certain foods – particularly when they come from the same region. Loire Sauvignon Blancs with Loire goats’ cheese, Ribera del Duero with oven-roasted local spring lamb – of course they work. Dry white wine with cheese generally. Cuts through the fat content. Of course. However, there may be other wines that work equally well. In Champagne we drink Champagne through an entire meal. Works fine. Dry Riesling with everything. Absolutely!

What I struggle with, is the fascistic notion that there is a single, perfect combination of a given food with wine. I worry that the Priests and Priestesses of this Black Art are constructing another mystical field of expertise that the regular, food-loving, wine-loving public now feels that they need to master before they can glimpse wine and foodie Nirvana. It’s a smoke screen. A mirage. You don’t need a higher authority to tell you what you can or cannot drink with your dinner. Muscadet with steak? Yquem with oysters, Grange with those delicate, grilled fillets of sole? Go for it.