If you’re of Italian descent or an Italophile, Christmas Eve means not waiting for Santa, but for the Feast of the Fishes. Though a popular tradition in the United States, it’s actually not an Italian ritual, though it may have roots in the history of Italian cuisine, particularly for those abstaining from eating meat for either religious or economic reasons.
“The so-called Feast of the Seven Fishes celebrated on Christmas Eve is probably an Italian-American creation and most certainly was made much more elaborate in our country,” says Fred Plotkin, a food historian and co-author of Rick Steves Eating in Italy.
The number of fish dishes vary—some ambitious cooks prepare 13—but seven is the most common offering. And what’s a better accompaniment than Italian wine? With so many styles of wine, pairing can be as exacting as the cooking.
“The Feast of the Seven Fishes presents a potential wine pairing challenge as there are many different factors at play here—types of fish (lean? oily?) as well as the prep (fried? baked? raw?),” says Scott Ades, president of Dalla Terra Winery Direct, an importer of family-owned Italian wineries.
Noting that mineral- and acid-driven white wines pair well with many seafood dishes, Ades says “As far as that category is concerned, Italy delivers in spades” — from Pinot Grigio grown in the foothills of the alps and Verdeca from the “heel” of Italy’s boot, to Carricante and Vermentino from the islands. “The versatility of Italian white wines is unmatched when it comes to seafood pairings. It is, after all, a peninsula surrounded by water.”
No matter the type or the preparation of fish for your feast, here’s a lineup of reliable wine performers: one for a starter and 13 for ambitious cooks.
Northeast. Start with a bright sparkling wine such as Letrari’s Zero Dosage Riserva from TrentoDoc, in Italy’s northeast corner. Very dry, crisp and fresh, and made of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (Nero) grapes, the wine rested on its lees for 36 months, giving this some heft, but not losing its alpine freshness. Also pairs with a lobster or white fish in a lemon cream sauce.
Also hailing from the northeast is Alois Lageder’s trio of biodynamically farmed Pinot Grigios produced under the Vigneti delle Dolomiti designation: Porer, Terra Alpina and RIFF. Made from 30-year-old vines 790 feet above sea level, the Porer spent time in contact with its skins and then with its stems for a year, resulting in a richly textured, almost waxy wine with savory herbal notes, ripe peaches and yellow apples. Serve this one with poached monkfish in lemon butter sauce or roasted cod. The Terra Alpina is a tropical-fruit inflected bright wine with tart green apples, lemon twist, an herbal undertone and a lees-y quality. RIFF is an easy-going and well-balanced sip with apples and pears galore, an herbal, underbrush finish; a nice uncomplicated wine for appetizers, and shellfish, especially clams.
It is always a pleasure to sample these soulful whites from Inama, a family winery now in the hands of third-generation brothers. Their Carbonare Soave Classico is made from the Garganega grape grown in volcanic soils, is richly textured, while also still featuring white flowers, citrus and bright yellow apple. Great match for seared scallops or pasta ai fruitti di mare.
From nearby Fruili, seek out Marco Felluga’s Mongris, a deeper interpretation of Pinot Grigio. Very apple-y and medium- to full-bodied, this can stand up to crab dishes. Attems, a venerated producer, offers a Sauvignon Blanc from a single-vineyard parcel in the Collio DOC. This one is rich‚ thanks to a variety of aging vessels—different barrels and cement egg—and savory with tinges of that exuberant verdant style you’d find in the new world. Very mineral and sharp, this is a good pairing with oysters and other raw seafood.
Moving south, still along the Adriatic coast, is the Tralcetto Pinot Grigio from Cantina Zaccagnini, one of a a line of everyday approachable wines. This one, produced in Abruzzo’s Colline Pescaresi Terre Di Chieti IGT appellation, is a light orchard-fruit-forward style that’s a match for shrimp or grilled white fish. Also from Abruzzo is the Masciarelli Maria Cvetic Trebbiano d’Abruzzo Riserva, a rich, full and satisfying wine bursting with kumquat, yellow pear and apple and a citrus tang. Piana Marina’s Torre Zambra, is a full-bodied yellow-fruited Trebbiano aged in a combination of barrels, concrete tanks and in the bottle before released. This is a textured and structure wine stands up to robust preparations of roasted red snapper or salmon.
Inland. From Toscana, Poggio alle Gazze dell’Ornellaia may bear a simple IGT designation, but this wine is anything but. Glycerol, powerful and intense, this is all about ripe, mature yellow fruits. A suave wine to go with seafood in creamy sauces or lobster. In the same vein is the Benefizio Pomino Bianco Riserva, a floral and tropical-fruited Chardonnay produced by the Frescobaldi family. The beautiful label deserves a place on the table. From Lazio, look for Ferentano, produced by the Cotarella family and made from 100% Roscetto, an ancient grape typically used for blending, but that has been resurrected and elevated by the Cotarellas. This textured wine shows stone and summer-melon fruit tones, white florals and honeysuckle aromas. Pair with a creamy seafood risotto.
Island. Sella & Mosca’s “La Cala” Vermentino di Sardegna is a shimmering, fresh, tropical-inflected wine with tart pineapple and yellow plum flavors. With mouthwatering acid, this is spot on for plucked-out-of-the sea fish preparations: simple, lightly dressed or naked. From Sicily, look for Mozia Grillo from Tasca D’Almerita, a full-bodied wine made from a vineyard in the Marsala lagoon. White-orchard fruit plays a role along with a lactic quality that’s also in step with the briny minerality you’d expect from a seaside wine.
No matter the number of fish you prepare or how, or the veracity of the tradition, which Plotkin, calls “opulence expressed with fish and seafood,” he says, “It is a pleasure to have a festive meal with loved ones. To honor the spirit of the holiday, I recommend that you welcome to your table those who are less fortunate in resources or companionship.”