Fish is a very special product. Chefs know how important it is to prevent or neutralize an unpleasant odor resulting  yet after short storage.  Another  important  question – this one  for sommelier -  is how to correctly pair fish and wine under these circumstances.

Let’s try to figure out how to work this problem out.

First of all - why does this odor occur? After all freshly caught fish does not have it, instead it has a pleasant aroma – often of fern leaves, freshly cut grass, fresh cucumbers  or raw champignons.  This pleasant aromas are explained by the fact that fish contains unsaturated fat acids. Long molecules of these fats after the first contact with air oxygen due to lipoxygenase enzyme are broken down into short fragments and begin producing  a distinct, slightly metallic aroma of green leaves.

So the easiest way to solve the problem of odor is to avoid it. That’s why a lot of trending high-end fish restaurants are either located right on the fish markets  or use their own fish boats. This makes the job of sommeliers much easier as well – freshly caught  fish  pairs greatly with even the lightest and most refined whites as well as some rosé  - Chablis, Champagne Zero Dosage, Franciacorta, Chassellas, Bandol.

But the more the fish is stored the bigger the chances it will start generating an unpleasant odor.  The chemistry under this is as follows.

To remove the smell we have to make the extremely volatile compounds of TMA and DMA less volatile. To do this we need to add to them a positively charged hydrogen ion - that is to put  them in an acidic environment  like vinegar or  lemon juice. Or to pair the fish with dry, acidic white wine like  Entre deux Mers, Soave, Txakoli, Picpoul de Pinet.

The best way to take advance steps and slow down the initial process of  turning TMAO into TMA is to marinate the fish. This will destroy many bacteria responsible for the conversion of TMAO into TMA. To make such marinate any products with disinfectant properties like ginger, pepper, onion, garlic, bay leaf, green tea, sage will do.

However, this should make sommeliers more watchful - all these ingredients have their own strong odors, which must be balanced by wines with high concentration of aromatic volatile substances. The best offer in this case might be Vermentino, Torrontes, Muscat, Traminer, Viognier - all containing terpenes, or Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner , young dry Riesling - containing  pyrazines, or Manzanilla/Sherry Fino with high concentration of  acetaldehydes.

Sea fish fillet contains a lot of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). This organic compound helps fish to survive in cold waters and removes excess nitrogen from the body.  When the fish is caught,  bacteria begin to transform TMAO into trimethylamine (TMA)  which has a strong odor  we call "fishy".

If the fish is stored – even if it’s kept refrigerated – due to the presence of  special  enzymes, TMA undergoes further  transformation and becomes dimethylamine  (DMA)  which in turn has an ammonia odor.  Thus after a comparatively short period of storage we are going to deal with the mix of  rather uninviting odors.

Winester review. Pairing fish and wine

Special cases

  • Fresh sea fish eats algae often has a persistent iodine aroma sometimes called a “sea odor”. This odor is caused by bromophenols, a compounds synthesized in seaweed.  For the cases we have this kind of fish  in menus it might be paired with tasty fruit flavors. Cava, Cremants, New World Chardonnay, Chablis Premier Cru, Vouvray, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Fiano de Avelino will work perfectly.


  • A very special category - high-speed predatory fish:  mackerel, tuna, herring shark, whose speed can reach 75 km / h. The blood vessels of the skin and the lateral muscles of the body are well developed, and the blood is rich in hemoglobin, they are even able to maintain body temperature above the ambient temperature. Due to the high content of iron (hemoglobin) and the dense texture of protein (muscles), the best pairs for such fish will not be white, but red wines. It is no coincidence that tuna is called "finned beef."

Bear in mind though, that the red wines that passed the complete malolactic fermentation and have an acidity of 3.0 - 5.0 g /l will not work here.  In addition to tannins, red wine “to tuna" should also have an acidity like that of whites - 6.0-7.0 g / l.

This might be Pinot Noirs from the cool regions, traditional Chianti and Valpolicella wines, Chinon or Bourgueil  from Loire, some  Beaujolais  Grand Cru - Morgon or Moulin-a-Vent.   Also an  interesting pair for  tuna-like fish can make higher alcohol and higher acidity rosé  produced by long maceration on pulp - Lyrac, Tavel,  Cerasuolo as well as Apulia and Navarra rosé.

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