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How to Choose the Best Wines for La Vigilia di Natale

By Carl Camasta

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian American custom based on the traditional southern Italian feast known as La Vigilia di Natale, or the Christmas Vigil. As in most Catholic holidays, the night before an important holiday would be a time to abstain from eating meat. Therefore, fish was the logical go-to food. In southern Italy, especially in Sicily, the most common fish dishes for La Vigilia were baccala (cod fish) and sardines fried in olive oil. But over the years, the menus have grown to include any and all varieties of seafood.

The idea of having a “seven course” fish dinner originated in the United States. The actual number of dishes has no bearing on the festivities. The gathering of friends and family to celebrate the birth of the Savior is what matters and for that reason alone the feast has stood the test of time.

Now the question at hand is which wines do we want to drink with all 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 suggested wines should be available in your local wine shop and all represent excellent values.

Raw Shellfish

For seafood such as clams and oysters on the half shell, I think one of the best matches is Prosecco. I recently had the opportunity to try the Fuoribolla Prosecco. Fuoribolla is Italian for a carpenter’s level and that is an appropriate name since the wine is well balanced. It is also crisp and refreshing. A perfect match for clams, oysters and shrimp cocktail. At a retail price of less than $15.00 it is a great value.

Cold Seafood Salads

The most common forms of Insalata di Mare are either Baccala Salad, Polpo (octopus) Salad or a combination of shrimp, scallops, calamari, scungilli and mussels. They are usually dressed with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. While the textures of the fish may differ, the dressing and seasoning are usually quite similar so, they will work well with the same wines.

For this dish you need a white wine with crisp acidity to cut through the richness of the seafood and olive oil without overpowering the delicate flavors. My suggestion would be a Sauvignon Blanc from Dipinti. This wine comes from Trentino at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains. It is aged in stainless steel tanks to retain its freshness. Aside from the crisp acidity, it also has a nice citrus edge that is a perfect match for the seafood salad. The retail price is about $15.00.

Fried Seafood

Fried seafood is another very popular category for the feast. This can be any variety of fish but usually includes calamari, sardines, smelts, 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.

For this pairing we need a wine with a bit more structure and flavor. My suggestion would be Tenute Rubino Negroamaro Rosato. This is a rose wine from the Negroamaro grape, grown along the Adriatic coast near Brindisi in Puglia. Tenute Rubino is a family-owned estate and under the watchful eyes of Luigi Rubino, produces excellent world class wines. This Rosato has inviting aromas of roses and cherries and a softness in the mouth that will blend well with the texture of the fried fish. Retail price about $15.00.

Pasta with Seafood

I think it is safe to say that it wouldn’t be an Italian feast without pasta; one of the world’s most versatile foods and a staple of the Italian American diet. When it comes to pairing a wine with pasta the most important factor is the sauce. So I will break it down into two general categories – white sauces and red sauces. The white sauce I am referring to is a basic oil, garlic and white wine that can accompany any variety of seafood and shellfish, from clams to lobster. The red sauce, when accompanying seafood, is usually a light tomato basil or marinara sauce.

For the seafood and pasta sauces, I am going to suggest a Sicilian winery that only recently arrived in the New York and New Jersey markets. The winery is called Baglio Assuli. Assuli in the Sicilian dialect means “Of the Sun.” It is a beautiful estate located near Mazara del Vallo in southwestern Sicily, which just happens to be the largest seafood port in Italy. In my mind, that makes it a natural choice for the seven fishes dinner. The winery is owned by the Caruso family and the wines are skillfully crafted by renowned winemaker Lorenzo Landi. For the white sauce, Flordiligi Grillo is a perfect match. It is medium-bodied, with crisp acidity and a delightful hint of lemon. For the red sauce, I would suggest the Lorlando Nero d’Avola. Nero d’Avola is the most widely planted red grape in Sicily and the styles vary from light and fresh to full and powerful. The Lorlando is somewhere in between. It is medium-bodied, so it will not overpower the seafood and the berry-like flavors and soft tannins make is a perfect match for the textures and delicate flavors of the fish. Both wines retail for about $15.00.

Buon appetito e buona festa!