Why do we pair white wine with fish and red wine with red meat?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Why do we pair white wine with fish and red wine with red meat?

—Anita, Kathmandu, Nepal

Dear Anita,

I think the overly simplistic saying “red with meat and white with fish” was useful because it was easy to remember and created in an era when the circle of influence for cuisine and wine was smaller. These days it’s no longer considered gospel, and for the most part replaced with the adage “drink what you like, and eat what you like.”

Even so, there are some general strategies to apply when pairing food and wine, including doing your best to either match or contrast flavors, weights and textures and to balance the intensity of both the dish and the wine. If you look at wine and food pairing this way, “red with meat and white with fish” actually includes some useful advice.

Red wines are almost always higher in tannins; their astringency can make the wine feel a bit "drying" on its own. But paired with a rich, fatty piece of red meat, the tannins can seem smoother, as fat diminishes the perception of tannins. Meanwhile, white wine can be a better complement to fish because of its higher acidity, which I like to think of as a squirt of lemon juice to brighten the flavors of seafood.

Of course, these basic rules change depending on how the dish is prepared. Is it grilled, wood-roasted, sautéed in butter, smoked, braised or poached? Is it spicy? Served with fruit, mushrooms, or fresh or dried herbs? There are so many variations that the simple rule isn’t always very helpful. But if you want some more pairing ideas, browse our Recipe Search!

—Dr. Vinny

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