Patagonian toothfish? That’s the real fish behind the so-called Chilean sea bass, not even in the bass family. Marketing geniuses correctly believed their coined name might make the fish more desirable. Authentic sea bass has firmer, denser flesh than its mimic, and comes in several versions: black sea bass appears in Chinese cuisine, red and black groupers are used in Latin countries’ cooking, white sea bass tends to come from Mexico and Hapu’upu’u hails from Hawaii.
Whatever the variety, chefs tend to bake, grill or pan-roast this popular fish. In many preparations, butter, olive oil, parsley and garlic will make an appearance, but most experts warn cooks to make sure of three things: that the fish is fresh, fresh and fresh.
Beyond these basics, innovators suggest a chain of seemingly endless accessories to the bass: black-olive sauce; risotto; vermouth (Neapolitan); bacon and bread crumbs (à la Manhattan); tomatoes, garlic and herbs (Greek); peanut sauce and sesame oil (Asian); stuffed with oysters (à L'Americaine). This is only the tip of the iceberg.
So how to design a wine for a fish that can take on so many styles? As usual, the dressing will influence the outcome, but we thought we’d ask a panel of experts. Two chefs, one wine connoisseur and one wine writer offer their recommendations.
Sea bass and chablis is a nice match. I like the 2006 Domaine Jean Collet et Fils, Chablis Grand Cru Valmur. This wine shows great citrus notes from the fruit and light vanilla, via the oak, adding to the fish by creating a mouth full of complexity. The citrus and vanilla add a gentle note to the herbs, smoke and savory notes of the fish. I tend to grill a sea bass with various herbs to caramelize the fish and get some sweetness and smoky elements out of it. An unoaked chardonnay also tends to bring a clean, refreshing element to the fish. Once again, we rely on the acid to cut through the fattiness of the bass. I really try to bring out the clean spirit of the pair by matching flavors, both in the solid and the wine, that have a distinctive freshness to them and should be recognized as such. Flavors must complement each other and bring out the main elements of the match: in this case freshness. – Chef Sir Roy J. Salazar, Certified Master Chef, Sommelier and Taster; Chef Instructor, San Francisco, CA.
Sea Bass, oven-roasted with tomato, fennel, picholine olives and preserved lemons. [My suggestion is the] 2007 Handley Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley.
My wife and I discovered this wine on a trip to Mendocino County last winter. We like to ‘drink locally’, so one night at dinner, we picked this from the list at the Albion River Inn. It was delicious and went well with several different dishes. We visited the winery the next day and had a great experience. They make a nice sparkling that is worth checking out, as well.
Light red wines can be great matches for fish dishes, especially this sea bass preparation. Bright fresh tomato, sweet spicy fennel, earthy French olives – they all reflect qualities of the Handley Pinot Noir. Preserved lemons add a rich citrus note, helping to keep the wine’s fruit intact. – Matt Bennett, Chef, MattCooks, St. Helena, CA.
Sea bass is a great fish that can be quite versatile in the way it is cooked. I prefer sea bass to be as fresh as possible, and to be actually caught in the ocean – not farmed. Though farmed fish is perfectly suitable, I personally prefer going to the fish market or even catching it myself. The flavors are significantly different and important to consider when pairing with wine. I like to grill the fish in a pool of spicy, tomato-rich salsa. The tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, and garlic make for a rather unique flavoring with the bass. Most people pair white wines with fish and are often afraid to try reds, but I like to spice the dish up and try something different. This dish pairs well with the 2008 Hess Small Block Syrah. As this wine was produced in limited quantity, it is a rare treat to come by. The aromas of plum and brown sugar tickle the end of your nose, as you taste pepper and dates in the wine. The 2008 wine crop was partially damaged due to a late frost, but the crop that remained was nearly perfect. The peppers in the fish enhance the sharp pepper taste of the wine and together create a smooth finish. Because the Hess grapes are grown at higher elevations, they create a unique quality of wine that pairs harmoniously with this zesty dish. – Heather Young, Wine Connoisseur, Napa, CA.
Alsatian rieslings make good accompaniments to sea bass, due to their inherit dry or off-dry character, and the 2007 Trimbach Reserve is more than up to that task. I like a pan-roasted fish with simple ingredients: garlic, butter and olive oil – maybe some lemon on the side. The resulting dish is lush and buttery with a little acid from the lemon. The rich, complex grapes that comprise the reserve harmonize with the butteriness of the fish preparation, while the dry, crisp, ripeness on the riesling’s long finish offsets the richness of the dish. – Paula Barker, Wine Writer, IntoWine.com, Santa Ana, CA.