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 La 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 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.
Pairing with Raw Shellfish (Clams, Oysters on the Half Shell, etc.)
Nothing matches raw shellfish better than nice glass of Prosecco. When it comes to Prosecco, there are a myriad of choices. The category has 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 Bisol “Jeio” Prosecco Brut. Bisol is a bit drier than the Villa Loren, but both have the typical hints of peach, balanced by crisp acidity and a nice creamy effervescence. Both can be found for about $15.
Shrimp Cocktail (so popular that it deserves its own category)
For this category I am recommending one of Italy’s trendiest white wines – Lugana. Produced along the southern shores of Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake, Lugana is made from Turbiana grapes. These are a local clone of Trebbiano and the wine is perfectly suited for light seafood dishes. One of the best is produced by the organic winery, Pratello. The hints of tropical fruit and minerality are balanced by crisp acidity. Pratello Lugana is available for about $18.
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.
I suggest a full-flavored Pinot Grigio. There is a lot of Pinot Grigio wine produced in Italy. Obviously, some are better that others. Some of the best Pinot Grigio is produced in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. The high altitude and mineral-rich hills add a special layer of complexity to the wines. The wines tend to be a little pricier than those of the Veneto region, but they are well worth seeking out, especially for a nice, full-flavored, seafood salad. Two of my favorites are Attems Pinot Grigio Friuli and La Tunella Pinot Grigio from the Collio Orientale area. Both wines can be purchased for $18 to $22.
This can be any variety of fish but usually includes calamari, sardines, smelts, anchovies, baccala and whitefish. The fish itself isn’t important to the wine pairing; it is the flavor and texture of the batter and oil that will challenge the wine.
This is a perfect category for Rosé Wine. Rosé is a category of wine that is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Well-made rosé wines blend the freshness of a white wine with the character of a red. Rosé comes in a variety of colors that range from salmon pink to deep pink. I would like to suggest one from each end of the color spectrum. By the way, rosé wines are made from red grapes. The color is determined by the amount of time that the skins are left in contact with the juice after the grapes are crushed. The skin gives the color and imparts a bit more structure or fullness to the final wine. The first wine I suggest is a Chiaretto. This literally translates to “little light one.” Pratello Chiaretto “Saint Emiliano” Rosé is made from an assortment of local grapes grown along the western shores of Lake Garda. The wine has beautiful floral aromas, bright fruit flavors and a dry finish that leaves you wanting a second glass. The deeper color rosé is from Abruzzo and is made from Montepulciano grapes. The category is called Cerasuolo, which means “cherry-like.” The color is deeper than most rosé wines and the flavors are reminiscent of black cherry and pomegranate, like a red wine, but it finishes fresh and clean like a white wine. One of the best is Masciarelli Villa Gemma Cerasuolo. Both the Villa Gemma and the Pratello Rosé sell in the $15 to $20 range.
Pasta with Red Seafood Sauce
Tomato based sauces always taste better with red wine, but 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 and the natural acidity of fish tends to create an unpleasant metallic taste.
Two wines come to mind. First is Falco Reale Montepulciao d’Abruzzo and the second is Capo Zafferano Primitivo di Manduria. Both of these red wines have an abundance of fruit, a nice round, mouth-filling texture and a soft finish. Either one would match well with tomato-based seafood sauces. Primitivo di Manduria is one of the most highly-regarded expressions of Primitivo grapes. The wine has a deep, dark color, but possesses an elegance that is quite unique. Montepulciano, from the Adriatic coast, east of Rome, has a medium-dark color with similar hints of cherries in both the aroma and the taste. Both wines sell in the $15 to $20 range.
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.
Villadoria Langhe Nebbiolo “Bricco Magno” $18
This wine is produced in the Piemonte region of Italy by the Lanzavecchia family. I remember introducing this wine to the U.S. back in the late 1990s. It had disappeared from the market for a few years, but I am happy to see that it has returned. It always represented an excellent value for one of Italy’s best grapes – Nebbiolo. This is the same grape that gives us the great wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Bricco Magno is a lighter, more forward expression of the Nebbiolo; it is a wine that you can drink every day.
Gemma Barbera “Cru Gelso” $20
Cantina Gemma owns nearly 40 acres in Piemonte and as of the 2018 vintage, will be certified organic. The Gelso vineyard is located in La Morra, in the center of the Barolo region. Barbera from this area is full-bodied and boldly structured. This is one of the best bottles of Barbera that I have had in quite a while. It is an amazing value at $20.