Posted by: tomciocco | June 8, 2008


I’m pretty confident that by now most of you have heard that the “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” directive is something of an overgeneralization, and looking at the bigger picture, indeed it is. That being said, let me also say that I think that this advice will properly guide you far more often than not, and consequently should not be wontonly flaunted or left unheeded without knowledge of the specific dishes being served or an intimate knowledge of the wine with which you want to “break the rule”. So what I’m saying is that if you’ve been selected by a friend or relative to bring the wine to a fish dinner, and know nothing more about that dinner than that it is somthing that once swam, don’t get cute or try to play the role of the iconoclast, and bring a red wine – there are just too many potential problems – and not only with the actual compatibility of the wine with the dish, but with various and sundry potentially broken expectations regarding what you should have done, or were expected to do by your host and her guests.

So with that out of the way, I’m going to jump back into the world of heterodox and tell you about how I paired a red wine with fish this past friday. Here’s how it went down…

I have been trying for years to get my wife Jennifer to allow me to cook more dishes featuring what the Italians call pesci azzurri  (literally “blue fish”) i.e. the usually smaller, fattier, “gamier” fish that most non-mediterranean or scandinavian people look down upon – fish like sardines (fresh not canned), anchovies (ditto), herring, mackerel, bluefish, etc. Many folks hear the name of these fish uttered and they dismiss them as “fishy”, “funky” or just plain “stinky”. This can indeed be case, but definitely does not have to be… Allow me to ‘splain…it’s a sort of “perception fulfills reality” scenario that plays out something like this: People think that “blue” fish are inherently too strong so they don’t buy them. That means that there is less turnover of the product which leads to fish lingering longer in the bins, and ultimately, to become less fresh fish. So, if and when a blue fish skeptic does actually decide to light out and try one of these suspect swimmers, ironically, the stereotype about these fish being funky is actually, albeit erroneously confirmed. The solution here, (and in general) is to find a good fish monger, and take all of the usual advice given about finding fresh fish (clear, convex eyes, smooth and vividly colored skin, red, moist gills, and no “fishy” smell). Never buy unfresh fish of any kind, but this goes double for the “blues”.

So specifically, why red wine with blue fish, and what kind? Well, those of you who eat these sorts of fish regularly know that they come off on the palate as more meat-like than fish-like: they are richer and denser with a deeper flavor profile, elements that certainly more strongly suggest red rather than white wine. The tannins in red wines (and the acidity as well) grabs nicely onto the extra fats and proteins present in blue fish that in may cases would overwhelm or even clash with whites.

So down to specifics. The dish I made was baked spanish mackerel fillets that were soaked for one hour in white wine (which was then discarded) and then slathered with a paste of bread crumbs, olive oil, lots of garlic, fresh mint, and crumbled bay leaves (with a side of roasted potatoes as a side, and bucatini all’amatriciana as first course). The wine I chose was a young Sangiovese from the Marche region (the dish too is Marchigiano). Why? Well, with these sorts of dishes the more acidity you can get your hands on, the better, and we all know Sangiovese has no lack of acidity. And though Sangiovese is rarely a very tannic wine, it has just enough (and not too much) tannin structure to cope with the whole bold affair. The third element to look for with matching blue fish dishes is a wine with good fruit. But, though I’m preaching reds with these dishes, don’t be tempted to go off the deep end with a 15.5% alcohol blockbuster – mackerel has got a stiff back, it not a grilled t-bone…let me give you a few “negative” examples – wines like Madiran, Sagrantino di Montefalco, or Douro reds based on Touriga Nacional are all wrong: fruit-challenged, too tannic, and lacking acidity…

Here’s the wine and the tasting notes:

Poderi San Lazzaro Rosso Piceno “Polesio” 2006

Quite saturated villet/garnet color. Bright and clean nose of blackberry, cherry, dusty earth, porcini mushrooms, and a slight florality. In the mouth the wine is gutsy and wonderfully rustic with lovely ripe but not overripe fruit, and a keen sense of balance with flavors of hibiscus tea and grape skins. This is a wine of great typicity and surprising complexity considering its modest aspirations.

One last thing – I don’t mean to suggest that if you made this dish, and you had your little heart just set on a white, that actually going ahead and serving one in this setting would damn you to the fourth level of oenological hell, just that in my opinion, the right red is better than the right white. If you do want to go with a white, go for a big, well structured white with good acidity, like an important Verdicchio or Gruner Veltliner, or even a classically-styled Chablis.






  1. Great to be reading your blog again Tom. Missed you at Wine Library the past couple of months. If my wife liked Fish at all I would try it. 🙂

  2. Hi Tom,

    I used to read your blog at Wine Library. How’s the importing venture going?

    In my Google search for you I ran across a 55 year old Tom Ciocco that was indicted on conspiracy and fraud charges in NJ. Any relation? 🙂

  3. Hey Kent-

    The situation went bust very quickly. I’m looking for another similar situation.

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