Seafood and Red Wine

Seafood and Red Wine

In “From Russia with Love”, James Bond threw a bad guy off a train and dryly remarked that he (007) should have been suspicious because the baddie ordered red wine with fish earlier in the evening. For ages, diners have been told that drinking red wine while eating seafood can produce an unpleasant metallic fishy aftertaste. The rule of thumb has been red wine with meat, white wine with fish. But the rule is not hard and fast. Salmon is a classic match for Oregon PinotNoir. What's the determining factor?

A quick anecdote from my own personal experience that prompted writing this article: Last week Jeanie and I went down to Yellowstone Park and stayed at Chico on the return trip. At dinner, while perusing the wine list, I spotted a single vineyard 2008 Barbaresco that was priced the same as the entry level Barbaresco from the 2012 vintage. We both thought that would be great with our red meat entrees and when the server opened it and poured it in the glass, we both were pretty smug about the selection—it was so delicious!! A few minutes later, the appetizer we ordered arrived. It was three pan seared scallops on a bed of fresh greens. The scallops were perfectly done, delicate with a soup con of garlic in the thin golden crust. Flavor, texture and presentation all came together on one small plate.

After I finished my first scallop, I took a swig of that magnificent Barbaresco and had a most UN-pleasant surprise. The inside of my mouth tasted like cod-liver oil drunk from a rusty can. Now, no offense to people who drink cod-liver oil out of a rusty can, but that was one of the most terrible experiences I have ever had a dinner table. I should have known better; after all, I am a wine professional. I had taken a great wine and an exquisite appetizer and temporarily ruined them both.My apologies to the chef; it was all my fault! A few gulps of water and a respite from the Barbaresco till my lamb arrived made everything happy again.

So what is it that makes that horrible reaction? I used to think it was the polyphenols or sulfites but researchers at Mercian Corp. in Fujisawa, Japan have come up with the real answer. They conducted an experiment with seven experienced wine tasters who were offered 38 varieties of red and 26 types of white.The volunteers tasted the samples, along with pieces of scallops. Then the researchers chemically analyzed the wines for a possible link to the aftertaste.

The culprit appears to be iron, the team reports in a recent issue of theJournal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. When the iron element's content rose above 2 milligrams per liter or so, the seafood-dining experience turned. The team double-checked their results by soaking pieces of dried scallops in samples of wine. Scallops dunked in vino with low iron content smelled normal, but pieces soaked in samples with high iron content reeked of fish scales. The mineral rich soils of Barbaresco must impart a high iron content to the wine and that is what gave us that godawful taste.

The researchers report that they haven't yet isolated the compound in the scallops that reacts with the wine, but they suspect it's an unsaturated fatty acid, which could be breaking down rapidly and releasing the fish smell when exposed to iron. Red wine tends to have a higher iron content, hence the admonition against mixing it with seafood.

The paper's science is sound, says enologist Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California. “Still,” he says, “there are better reasons to avoid red wine with fish: Any robust red wine, regardless of iron content, would likely overwhelm the delicate, subtle flavor of many seafood dishes."It might also get you thrown off the train.