Any bozo with a bag of briquettes can grill a steak. Seafood requires nerve.
It takes confidence to entrust a delicate slab of salmon or tuna to a pile of red-hot coals. It takes a keen eye to tell when swordfish is cooked but not overdone. It takes a steady hand to toss delicate shrimp and scallops on the barbie and have them come out just right.
This same spirit of adventure pays off well when choosing wine to go with grilled seafood. The "safe" choice among white wines, the ever-popular chardonnay, has no great affinity for grilled foods. It's OK, but there are better matchups. Some of them are even red. It all depends on the type of seafood.
In recent weeks, my Weber has been blazing away in an effort to test possible matches for grilled seafood. Chardonnay has had its chance, as have such exotica as viognier, marsanne and chambourcin.
When the smoke cleared, one varietal stood out as the champion. Sauvignon blanc, sometimes aided by its trusty sidekick semillon, complemented more forms of grilled seafood successfully than any other type of wine.
There is something about sauvignon blanc that connects with the flavors imparted by the grill. The smoky flavors of the grape are matched by those in the food. The herbal quality of the wine marries well with many a marinade. The acidity, sharper than that of most chardonnays, makes it more refreshing in warm weather.
Sauvignon blanc is also cheaper than chardonnay, and not because of any lesser quality. In California, the best sauvignon blanc-semillon blends now rival the finest chardonnays. The finest dry white Bordeaux, most of them blends of sauvignon blanc and semillon, are just as compelling as the most esteemed chardonnay-based whites of Burgundy.
There is one type of grilled seafood that resists the charms of a good sauvignon blanc. Tuna steak, that veritable venison of the sea, all but demands a red wine.
Tuna doesn't match up well with just any red wine, however. Like other fish, it requires a wine with good acidity and little obvious tannin. Too big a red can obscure its flavors and turn bitter; too slight a red can seem insipid.
Among the reds that seem to work well with tuna are California pinot noir, medium-weight red Burgundy, some of the more muscular "crus" of Beaujolais (Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon), and Chianti Classico.
Best of all, especially when the tuna is marinated in herbes de Provence, are the leading red wines of southern France. Bandol, where the mourvedre grape is king, produces the finest, but other fine southern French wines come from Minervois, Corbieres, the Cotes de Roussillon and other growing districts (appellations).
Interestingly, the one Maryland wine tasted as part of this experiment was quite successful. The 1992 Chambourcin from Woodhall was rustic and as pale as old Burgundy, but the flavors came front and center when tasted with tuna.
Grilled salmon and swordfish steak are flavorful enough to stand up to a light red wine such as Beaujolais, but generally they seem to thrive in the company of full-flavored white.
In some cases, where they are served with a sweet or spicy salsa, a big California chardonnay with a hint of residual sugar is one of the few things with a chance of standing up to the meal. But where the taste of the fish isn't smothered in condiments, you can't do better than a full-bodied, oak-aged California sauvignon-semillon blend. Another good bet is marsanne, a Rhone Valley variety made by a few iconoclasts in California and Australia.
Whole salmon, poached in foil over a grill, doesn't pick up as much of the grill flavor and thus could be more chardonnay-friendly. Still, nothing complements the taste of salmon as well as pinot gris from Alsace or Oregon.
For other white-fleshed fish, a lighter California sauvignon blanc, a Loire Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume or a dry California chenin blanc would be an excellent match. The best German rieslings, with their aggressive acidity, could be useful if the weather is warm, but there's nothing in their flavor profile that suggests a perfect match with grilled food.
With grilled shellfish, such as scallops or shrimp, there is nothing better than an ice-cold glass of Champagne or other sparkling wine. Any light, refreshing white will fit the bill, however.
Here are some specific suggestions of matchups that worked:
Tuna steak: 1990 Domaine Tempier Bandol ($21); 1991 Chateau de Casenove Cotes du Roussillon, Cuvee Jaubert ($18); 1991 Thomas Coyne Mourvedre, Sonoma County ($12); 1991 Chateau Donjon Minervois ($7.49); 1992 Saintsbury Pinot Noir ($9); 1993 Georges Duboeuf Moulin-a-Vent ($10); 1992 Woodhall Chambourcin, Maryland ($9).