The Fish, the Sauce, the Wine

One often hears it said that, when pairing wine with a mild fish, the sauce is a key consideration; if you’re preparing a strongly flavored sauce for the fish, the advice is usually that you should pair the sauce rather than the fish.

So it was, the other night, that I tried pairing two reds with a plate of skate wing over potatoes lyonnaise in a red-wine jus. The dish came from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon cookbook. I don’t use the book often, but I’m always, always impressed when I do. The recipes do tend toward hidden complexity: Just to get the required quarter cup of red-wine jus, you’ve got to reduce an entire bottle with aromatic vegetables and herbs; just to get the potatoes right, you’ll first make onion confit, which in turn means simmering onions for two hours.

Not that Keller expects anyone to live this way. His explanation of bistro food (or, rather, Bouchon food), makes perfect sense of all this by explaining that flavor enhancers such as onion confit and red-wine jus would simply be part of the restaurant’s pantry, always on hand. Reaching to grab them, therefore, would take only an instant but give the dish terrific power. And it’s true: The Bouchon recipes are powerfully flavored, but in a subtle and well-integrated way. It’s perfect dinner party fare, in fact, because it’s glitzy without the appearance of great effort, and immensely delicious without calling attention to curious ingredients or preparations.

Anyway, I made this dish for L on a weeknight, and made a point of not telling her what I was doing. This is a key part of my strategy, these days: If I make a big deal about a dish, or in any way imply that I think she’ll like it, I nearly guarantee a lukewarm response. Autonomy is hugely important to most human beings; it is especially important to both of us. If I feel L pushing me to accomplish a home-improvement project, I will unconsciously dig in my heels against it. She is the same way with food: If she feels pressured to like it, she won’t, or at least she won’t admit it. So I behaved no differently than I would’ve behaved while boiling plain dry pasta: Just whipping up a little dinner, no fuss at all. Then I slipped the plate in front of her and opened two wines—a Merlot and a Sangiovese—certain one would work.

“This is amazing,” L said, with her first bite. “Oh my God, this is so delicious.”

But the wine, the wine … neither red was quite right, and I was desperate to make the right pairing while the food was still warm.

“Try a complex white,” she said.

“Really?”

“Trust me.”

So I did, pulling out a Domaine Zind Humbrecht Pinot D’Alsace, and my goodness what a dream. The rest of the meal was pure reverie, and I had yet another small data point to add to my evolving sense of how to match food and wine.

Although the potatoes were indeed drizzled with a red-wine jus, the preponderance of flavor came from that sweet, unctuous onion confit. And the skate wings themselves had been pan-fried with a great deal of butter and lemon. The red-wine jus, therefore, added a kind of bass-note depth to an overall taste experience that was dominated by citrus, butter, and rich sweetness.

The Alsatian wine was perfect because it had just enough sweetness and viscosity to harmonize. But it also had the bright Alsatian acid to pick up the dish’s high notes. Of course, the best part of all was the satisfaction this gave my wife, and the hope I entertained that it might further lure her into my nightly food-and-wine celebrations.

2005 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Pinot D’Alsace
Grapes: I haven’t been able to find the exact blend, but it is probably Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Auxerrois. As one Alsatian winemaker has put it, speaking to their wild range of blends and varietals, “When you listen to Mozart, you don’t ask what percentage of violin there is, or what percentage of oboe. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they all play harmoniously together. If I can distinguish the varieties, then it’s no longer wine. Wine is music; wine is harmony.”
Wood: I have no idea
Alcohol: 14 percent
Price: About $21
My Tasting Notes: I think this wine is a bargain at its price, a beautiful synthesis of fresh fruit and smooth, racy acidity. A terrific food wine, especially where you don’t need something austere.

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