Recently, we claimed that Denverites, being fearless when it comes to beer, have no excuse for their apprehensions about wine. Okay, maybe that wasn’t entirely fair—you have a couple. For one thing, you’re surrounded by brewers whose jobs depend on encouraging you to experiment with their product over any other. For another—and this is true regardless of location—beer is a lot easier to understand than wine, right down to the label. Generally speaking, a hefeweizen is a hefeweizen is a hefeweizen, but a Napa Chardonnay isn’t a white Burgundy isn’t even the same white Burgundy from a different vintage.
No wonder casual wine drinkers get so worked up about all the supposed rules of the grape game, from serving temperatures to tasting techniques to proper pairings. But here’s the good news: some of those old dos and don’ts are outdated, overly rigid or just plain false. Take, for starters, the still-prevalent notion that you should pour only white wine with seafood. Pretty much any expert will reassure you that so long as you keep the tenets of balance in mind—which in this case means rejecting the biggest, baddest reds in favor of lighter-bodied, less-tannic bottlings—you’re sure to find a decent match, as with these examples.
Clams with Pork
A golden key to smart pairing: take into account how and with what the main ingredient is cooked. Many a classic clam dish also contains sausage or bacon, which opens the door to a wider range of possibilities than a raw platter would. At Stoic & Genuine, says co-owner Beth Gruitch, "one of my favorites is steamed clams with chorizo and tomato fondue. An Italian red that’s a little lighter but has some structure to it would be awesome" with components like those. Stoic’s chowder, meanwhile, has got "depth and savory flavors and a little bit of smokiness from the lardons," qualities Gruitch thinks work well with a Cabernet Franc-based Saumur Rouge that also hints at smoke. Bonanno Concepts wine director Kelly Wooldridge seconds her opinion: as their elegant fruit complements its sweetness, "I love Loire Valley red blends with shellfish."
Fried Calamari (and Oysters)
Yet another useful pairing guideline: look to a dish’s origins for possible regional matches. Though squid’s fried around the world, Italy is probably best known for calamari fritti, so it’s a good place to start. Luca’s Sicilian-inspired version, with marinara, capers and crushed chilies, leads Wooldridge toward "bright cherry-fruited, high-acid guys" that mirror "those dense tomato flavors," like Sicily’s own Nerello Mascalese or a Sangiovese (which "tomato-based sauces just scream out for"). At Spruce in the Hotel Boulderado, manager Stephan Geson takes a similar approach to calamari served with smoky tomato jam and garlic aioli, suggesting Barbera d’Alba: "Its earthy tones and meaty aspect play well with the texture of the calamari." And Humboldt Farm - Fish - Wine beverage manager Ryan Corey carries that idea over to fried oysters, pointing to both "rustic" Barbera and Dolcetto for their "nice bright fruit to cut through the brininess and acidity to cut through the fat."
Red wine can run roughshod over lobster, that most delicate of delicacies. The simpler the showcase for it, the better off you are sticking with white. But if the preparation’s especially luscious, you’ve got a fighting chance—as with Mizuna’s signature lobster mac-and-cheese. "That’s the definition of richness," says Wooldridge. "It needs the acidity of a lighter, zippier red to balance it out. A Northern Italian Schiava or Côte du Beaune would work, but the coolest thing that I can think of would be this funky sparkling Gamay from Bugey-Cerdon we have." By that same logic, lobster pizza with an Italian sparkling red, like Lambrusco, would surely be swell.
Japanese-style raw fish is another toughie—but if the scrupulous Kizaki brothers and their team at Sushi Den say it can be done, then it can be done. According to them, the right Burgundy (Pinot Noir) can absolutely accompany their ginger sashimi or bluefin zuke garnished with blue cheese and truffle caviar, while Beaujolais (Gamay) plays well with goldeneye snapper. Which brings us to the ultimate takeaway from any discussion of red wine with seafood: when in doubt, choose Pinot Noir or Gamay.
In fact, delicate yet lively Gamay may be the most versatile red there is for lighter fish. Geson recommends it with Spruce’s whole fried snapper in romesco sauce, and Corey likes it with Humboldt’s pan-roasted cod in bacon-laced clam-chowder broth. But overall, weightier, oilier fish are your best bets alongside reds. Salmon goes so swimmingly with Pinot that the pairing is almost a cliché; the folks at Sushi Den, for instance, vote for Aberrant Cellars Confero from Oregon’s Williamette Valley with their pan-roasted Scottish salmon in yuzu-plum beurre blanc. As for other potential red-wine partners, Gruitch looks at tuna, Corey points to steelhead trout and Wooldridge nominates monkfish (sometimes called "the steak of the sea"). In the end, Wooldridge adds, "The only thing that I won’t pair with fish, due to its inherent lack of acidity, is New World Cabernet. So much else can really be played with, as long as it has enough acidity."
And even that rule can be broken. Why? Because it’s just wine—no one will die if you insist on ruining a good meal with a bad pairing. As Gruitch puts it, "I really didn’t want to have a Cab by the glass on our list. But so many people were requesting it that I finally broke down. If you want it, have at it. Who am I to say?"