The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian American custom based on the traditional Southern Italian feast known as La Vigilia or, more formally, La Vigilia di Natale. As in most of Roman Catholic holidays, the night before an important holiday would be a time of abstinence. Not a total fast but, simply a time to abstain from eating meat. With no meat, fish was the logical alternative. In Southern Italy, especially Sicily, the most common fish dishes for La Vigilia were baccala (cod fish), Sarde (sardines) and Acciughe (anchovies) fried in olive oil. But over the years, the menus have grown to include any and all varieties of seafood. And the Christmas Vigilia evolved into a ritualistic, seven-course meal.
The idea of having a seven-course fish dinner was born in the United States. The origins are not clear, but seven is a number that has strong Christian roots. There are seven sacraments, there are seven deadly sins and God created the world in seven days. Therefore, it is very likely that the Seven Fish dinner has its basis in Christianity. However, the origins are not important, nor are the number of fish dishes. More or fewer dishes has no bearing on the festivities. The gathering of friends and family to celebrate the birth of the savior is what matters and that is what has allowed La Vigilia to stand the test of time.
So what wines should we drink with those fish dishes? Since there is no limit to the number of seafood dishes that are served on this holiday, I thought it best to group together similar dishes and suggest wines that will match each category. All of the wines suggested should be available in your local wine shop.
Category 1 – Raw Shellfish like clams and oysters on the half shell.
Wine: Nothing matches raw shellfish better than nice glass of Prosecco.
When it comes to Prosecco, there are a myriad of choices. The category has been more than doubled in the last few years and so has the availability of brands. Two brands that are worth seeking out are: Villa Loren Prosecco Extra Dry and Zardetto Prosecco Brut. Zardetto is a bit drier than the Villa Loren, but both have the typical hints of peach and citrus, balanced by crisp acidity and a nice creamy effervescence. They can both be found for about $15.
Category 2 – Shrimp Cocktail. This is such a popular dish that I think it deserves its own category.
Wine: For this category I am recommending one of Italy’s trendiest white wines – Vermentino.
Vermentino is a white wine that is primarily produced in Sardinia and Liguria. One of my favorites is the Costamolino Vermentino from the historic Sardinian producer, Argiolas. The wine has a refreshing aroma of mint and delicious citrus and lemon flavors, making it a perfect match for a fresh cold Shrimp Cocktail. Argiolas Vermentino di Sardegna “Costamolino” is available for about $15.
Category 3 – Cold Seafood Salads. This can be any individual or combined array of seafood. It includes Baccala (cod) Salad, Polpo (octopus) Salad or a mixed Insalata di Mare. They are usually dressed with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. While the textures of the fishes may differ, the dressing and seasoning are usually quite similar so, they will work well with the same wines.
Wine: Italian Chardonnay
Most people don’t associate Italy with Chardonnay. But Chardonnay has been produced in Italy since the middle of the 19th century and it is one of Italy’s top five white wine grapes. Obviously, some are better that others with some of the best produced in Tuscany. The calcium and mineral-rich Tuscan hills add a special layer of complexity to the wine. These wines tend to be a little pricier than most Italian white wines but they are well worth seeking out, especially for a nice, full-flavored seafood salad. Two of my favorites are: Il Borro Lamelle ($20) has a nice peach and floral aroma with good citrus, minerality and acidity; all the things you want in a wine to pair with seafood salad. If you want to splurge a bit (it is Christmas, after all), I would look for Frecobaldi Pomino Benefizio ($40). This wine was first produced at the Castello di Pomino in the mid-1800s. It was also the first white wine in Italy to be fermented in barriques like the great Chardonnays of France. The wine has aromas of orange peel and dried fruit, accented by a touch of spice. It has a nice richness on the palate and makes an excellent complement to seafood salads.
Category 4 – Pasta with red or white Seafood sauces. Tomato based sauces always taste better with red wine and White sauces, usually made with white wine, oil and garlic, tend to be better suited for white wines. The important thing to remember is that when you have seafood involved, you need to be careful in your selection. Ideally, you want to choose a red wine that is lighter to medium bodied with very soft tannins. Full, rich, tannic reds will allow the acids of the fish to create an unpleasant metallic taste. With White wine, you want something that is dry and crisp, as opposed to rich and buttery.
Wine: For red wine I recommend Pratello Torazzo ($18). It is produced from two local grapes, Marzemino and Gropello, grown on the shores of Lake Garda. It has bright fruit flavors and very soft tannins. Serve it a bit chilled for optimal enjoyment. For white sauces, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Collio Orientale region in the hills of northeastern Italy. This area produces some of Italy’s best white wines. The Sauvignon Blanc form La Tunella ($20) is among the best. It has beautiful herbal aromas, rich fruit and clean citrus-like acidity.
Category 5 – The last category is simply for those of you that just want to have a full-bodied red every time you sit down to a holiday feast. I know there are quite a lot of you, so, I am going to share a couple of my latest discoveries.
Quercecchio Brunello di Montalcino ($50) – When it comes to Italian red wines, it is hard to bear Brunello. It is one of the best expressions of the Sangiovese grape, showing rich dry cherry flavors, a full-bodied texture and a hint of spice. Always a crowd pleaser.
Villa Loren Ripasso di Valpolicella ($20) – Full-bodied enough to warm you up and elegant enough to accompany seafood. Ripasso is a style of wine that is made by re-fermenting Valpolicella on Amarone lees. This creates a wine with richness without being overpowering – soft and balanced with a hint of raisins and dark cherry fruit.