Why Do We Pair Italian White Wine With Fish?

One of the greatest joys in life lies in finding the perfect Italian wine to pair with your food. That sweet symphony of flavours that you experience when you get it just right is one of the most amazing of life’s little experiences.

Of course, things can also go pear-shaped if you get it wrong. If you pair a strong wine with food that isn’t equally rich, you end up with an imbalance of flavours that can ruin the whole meal.

This is why many people take the science of pairing the right Italian wine with their meals so seriously!

And it’s through a lot of trial and error that we’ve come up with some basic guidelines for pairing that new wine drinkers can follow.

One of the most common is that you should only pair fish with white wine.

It’s one of the first “rules” you’ll hear when you start researching how to pair food and wine. But why does the rule exist? Is it really so bad to pair red wine with fish?

In this article, we look at some of the most common reasons given for why it’s white wine or no wine when it comes to fish dishes.

Reason #1 – Red Wine Tends to Contain More Iron

The main reason that people give for not drinking red wine with fish isn’t that the wine overpowers the fish.

It’s that this combination results in a rather nasty fishy aftertaste once you’ve finished the meal.

If that all sounds a little unstable as a reason, it’s worth looking at some research conducted by a company called Mercian Corp in Japan. The group, which produces wine and spirits, ran an experiment with seven seasoned wine tasters. They were tasked with drinking a sample of wine before eating a piece of scallop, which is the type of seafood most likely to create the fish aftertaste.

All told, the experiment examined 26 varieties of white wine and 38 red vintages.

The researchers found that the presence of iron in the wine was the main issue. If a wine contained 2mg or more of iron per litre, the fishy aftertaste occurs.

So, what does this have to do with the whole red wine issue?

It turns out that red wine tends to have a higher iron content than white. This is typically down to the type of soil used to grow the grapes, as well as the methods used to harvest and process them. 

White wine almost always falls below the 2mg limit the researchers identified, which is why you don’t get the aftertaste.

Interestingly, this opens up the path for further experimentation. After all, Italian red wines that don’t contain a lot of iron also don’t create the fishy aftertaste we spoke about. Still, it’s for this reason that most stick to the white wine rule. With red, you’re always taking the risk that the iron content will ruin the meal!

Reason #2 – White Wine Has Lower Tannin Levels

Let’s take iron out of the equation and look at something that’s more familiar to the wine lover – tannins.

Generally speaking, red wines have higher levels of tannins than white wines. This is pretty typical, regardless of the specific vintage that you drink.

The issue here is one of flavour.

High tannins tend to mesh well with foods that have a high fat content. The flavour profiles match up, which means the food and the wine complement each other. This is why people tend to drink red wine with red meats, such as beef or pork.

The issue is that fish doesn’t have the same kinds of fat as you’ll find in red meats.

In many cases, the tannins in a red wine will overpower the rich fats of the fish, leading you to a meal full of disparate and unbalanced flavours.

Italian white wine, on the other hand, has lower levels of tannins. This means it tends to mix well with fish, which isn’t quite as rich as red meat.

Reason #3 – White Wines Have Higher Acidity

With acidity, we se a reversal of the levels that we see when it comes to tannins.

Red wines typically have low acidity, with white wines having much higher levels. This makes sense when you think about how many white wines have a citrus overtone. It’s also this high acidity that makes white wines more refreshing to drink, whereas red wines tend to be more relaxing.

Why does this matter when it comes to fish?

Think about one of the most common things that a person can do to bring out the flavour in a fish dish. You squirt a little lemon juice on it to bring out the flavour, right?

That’s essentially what you’re doing, in a more refined manner, when you drink white wine with fish. You’re adding a little acidity to your palate, which helps to bring out the more subtle flavours of the fish.

Can the Rule Be Broken?

It absolutely can!

After all, this idea of only drinking white wines with fish is more of a guideline than a rule. And there are many situations that could lead to you changing things up.

For example, you may have a very light red wine that’s low in iron and tannins. If that’s the case, you might try the wine with fish because it’s unlikely to overpower it.

There are also some extremely rich fish that can overpower many white wines. Mackerel and tuna are good examples. For this fish, it’s often better to go for a red wine to match the richness of the food.

And finally, think about the other ingredients on the plate. A piece of fish on its own may be best suited to a white wine. But if you coat that fish in a rich sauce, you may need to drink a red to match the new flavour profile.

Ultimately, it’s all down to your personal preference. Pairing Italian wine with food isn’t an exact science and it’s open to experimentation. Try a few combinations for yourself and you’re sure to find one that suits your tastes.