As Italian-Americans, one of the things we look forward to the most each Holiday season is the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. If you have never heard of or been to this celebration, all we can tell you is that you are missing out! The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a raucous party of food, family, fun, and, of course, wine! We’ll tell you how our family celebrates this amazing bash, the types of seafood we eat, and, most importantly, we’ll taste and review three wines that we think will be the perfect fit for this, or any other, Holiday celebration. Naturally, all of the wines are Italian, and because the meal revolves around seafood, all of the wines are white - however, we have some recommendations for white wines that you may not have heard of, but that are fantastic, reasonably priced, and should be easy to find. Wines reviewed in this episode: 2021 Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino, 2021 Umani Ronchi Terre di Chieti Vellodoro Pecorino, and 2021 Zenato Lugana San Benedetto.
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Episode 57: Wines for the Feast of the Seven Fishes (Christmas Eve wines, Family Holiday traditions, Italian-American celebrations, wine and seafood pairings, under-the-radar Italian white wines) 00:00
Hello! And welcome to The Wine Pair Podcast. I’m Joe, your sommelier of reasonably priced wine, and this is my wife and my wine pairing partner in crime, Carmela. And we are The Wine Pair!
Ok, a quick orientation for those of you who may be new to the podcast - in each episode we learn about, taste and review three wines that are reasonably priced - meaning under $20 - and should be easy for you to find. Our goal is to have some fun, learn about some new wines, and talk about wines in a way that regular people like us can understand. And we are proud to say we are officially recommended by the editors of Decanter Magazine, who call us fun, irreverent, chatty, and entertaining.
So, many of you out there in listening know that Carmela and I are both Italian-American. Both of our grandparents or great-grandparents on both sides of our family were immigrants to the United States from different parts of Southern Italy. And, we know that many people out there have family traditions around the Holidays that are passed down from generation to generation, and whether it’s for Hanukkah or Kwanza or Christmas or whatever it is you choose to celebrate, those traditions are what make the Holidays special.
Now, Carmela, in your family you have a tradition that we both love, and it is a widely celebrated tradition for many Italian Americans, and it is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and it takes place every Christmas Eve. This is a big party held at either your parents house or your uncle Frank and Aunt Deanne’s house, and there is tons of food, tons of wine, tons of people, tons of Italian treats, and generally not a speck of meat. And so, for this episode, for those of you out there in listening land, we are going to talk about what this celebration is, and of course going to spend some time talking about wines that we think are great fits for this amazing celebration.
Now, on my mom’s side of the family, I do remember that having fish on Christmas Eve was a tradition, although it was a much more subdued and humble meal, and the big meal on Christmas Day. I seem to recall that the Christmas Eve tradition was usually a meal of baccala in tomato sauce.
If those of you out there in listening land don’t know what baccala is, lemmee tell you. It is a traditional Italian salted cod that is used in a variety of ways, none of which I personally like very much. Now, there is a famous Italian song that has baccala in it that you may know called “C’e la Luna” - the chorus goes “hey ma ma pesce fritte baccala” or something like that because, like a lot of things from the old country, different families and regions pronounce things differently or use slightly different words.
But, in my mom’s family, which I think is true of a lot of Italian American - or in the case of my mom’s family Italian Canadians - who came from the very southern province of Calabria - pretty much any food could be combined with tomato sauce. So, we had things like peas and tomato sauce, and my mom made this dish we called “meat in the pan” which was basically just old beef roast that she revived in tomato sauce in a pan over the stove.
And, on Christmas Eve, it was this baccala or salted cod that my Aunt Agata made which was rinsed to get the salt out and then dropped into a pot of tomato sauce where it simmered all day. And then they would eat that before heading to Midnight Mass.
All I can remember about baccala, because I don’t think I ever ate it because I was not much of a fish or seafood eater, is that I thought it smelled terrible. I also remember that my mom and my aunt’s and uncles were crazy about it. Which always seemed so weird. But your family, Carmela, has a much more elaborate celebration, and I don’t think baccala is on the menu at all. At least I have never seen it there. Do you remember it?
Well, we are not here to talk about baccala. We are here to talk about the crazy huge amazing meal that is called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. So, we’ll talk about what the Feast of the Seven Fishes is in more detail, and we are going to taste and review three white wines that we think may be good pairings for this fun night, and each of the choices is 1) from Italy, and 2) probably not a super common choice for a lot of wine drinkers, so this will be really fun. And, just to make sure we are not going off the beaten path, all of these wines are easy to find, and all are under $20.
So, let’s get to it, shall we? Yes we shall -
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ARTICLES and LINKS
Topic: What is the Feast of the Seven Fishes? 10:03
So let’s give a little background to our listeners out there about what the Feast of the Seven Fishes is.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes likely originated in Italy in some form, but is definitely associated with Italian-Americans today - especially Italian-Americans whose backgrounds come from the South of Italy. Truly, this feels like a very Southern Italian thing, don’t you think? To some, it may seem strange that Christmas Eve is a meal that is centered around fish, but the roots of it are actually religious, more specifically, steeped in Catholicism.
Do you know why the focus is on fish?
Most people of Italian background were raised Roman Catholic, and in the Catholic tradition, it is very common that the evening before a major feast day was a meal where abstinence from meat was observed. Now, the original purpose behind not eating meat is supposed to be a sort of a penance, a way to prepare and cleanse yourself for the celebration - but in this meal, there is no suffering!
I will say that some families are militant about there being no meat at all that night, but others are a little more loose. Your Aunt Lucia, for instance, will often make a delicious crock pot of drunken weenies for the evening that is one of my favorites.
And do you know why 7 is important? It is no accident that it is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and not the 3 fishes or 5 fishes or 28 fishes.
The number seven is significant in Christianity and Catholicism as well. In the Bible, seven is a number that comes up often - there are seven sacraments in the Catholic church, seven days of creation, there are seven deadly sins, and it is a number associated with perfection. When asked, Jesus told his followers to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven times, for instance. Evidently, the number is mentioned in the Bible over 700 times. And, when I asked ChatGPT, they told me that it is probably most linked to the seven sacraments.
And, while the celebration of course exists because of Christmas, it is not exactly a religious celebration except for maybe at some point someone will say grace. But, in your family, I will also say that it was not uncommon for a priest to show up at some point in the night. Sometimes one of the priests would come for a bite to eat in between Masses, and maybe to have a small glass of wine. Or three.
Now, the rules for what to serve in this Feast of the Seven Fishes are not hard and fast. Fish does not literally mean fish, but could be any kind of seafood. And, there have to be at least seven dishes, but there could be more - and in our family there are more. And appetizers do count. I have read that some families take the seven to mean seven different types of seafood, but that others really think about it more as needing to have seven different dishes, but those different dishes could be from just a couple of types of fish or seafood.
Also, it is pretty common that there are just waves of food throughout the night, which usually starts after Christmas Eve Children’s Mass which is in the late afternoon or early evening (and which is probably my least favorite Mass of all but that is a story for another time), but those waves of food do eventually lead to a large buffet dinner, believe it or not.
What are the seafood dishes that we commonly see served?
- Baked clams
- Fresh oysters (sometimes oysters that your brother and dad “farm” off of the beach house on Vashon Island)
- Steamed mussels and clams
- Cracked crab
- Grilled shrimp
- Smoked salmon
- Calamari salad
We have a famous line that we like to use that night, that I think came from your brother Fiore, Carmela. We say “eat and fall back” which is a line I suggest all of you out there in listening land start using in the right situations. Now, picture this - there is a good sized table in the kitchen where the waves of seafood are being served. And, while the table is good sized, it is still not quite big enough to be able to handle all of the people who want to eat. Because there are a lot of people there! So, “eat and fall back” is a fun way to prod some people - we might call them “gavone” or big eaters - to give someone else a chance. Some people get it, some don’t. Some people just use their hind end to block people out. It happens.
But, to this table comes wave after wave of the food, and if you are not paying attention, you will miss it because most of the time you will not be alerted that a new wave of food is coming.
After these waves of seafood, we have the buffet dinner, which usually consists of some sort of pasta dish. I mean, there has to be a pasta dish! Your mom usually makes lasagna while Uncle Frank and Aunt DeAnne often make a penne with red sauce. And there are a number of salads including a caprese salad, bread, fruit, cheese, and vegetable sides. Yes, there is a lot of food. And yes, it is kind of a workout.
And then, there are about a dozen deserts. And I might be undercounting. What are some of those desserts, Carmela? Aunt Glo makes pizzelle, you make a bunch of cookies, your mom and your brother often make Italian desserts - and in the past it was Giovanina, your mom’s cousin - like pignoli which are cookies covered in pine nuts, angel turds or crescent cookies, cookies with sprinkles on them, torcetti, and fried dough cookies covered in honey that I can never pronounce. There are also store bought treats like panettone, torrone, M&M’s, gummy candies, and chocolates from See’s
We could talk about the food forever, but we should probably get to the wines we chose, because, as we have said a million times, for Italians, wine is the 5th food group, and so pairing wine with the food is crucial.
ARTICLES and LINKS
Wines We Chose for The Feast of the Seven Fishes 20:25
As we mentioned earlier, all of the wines we are drinking today are relatively easy to find. I know you can find all of them on wine.com because that is where we found them, and all of them are under $20, and in fact none was more than $17.99. And all of them had decent ratings from at least one well known professional reviewer.
All of the wines are also, of course, Italian wines, and because we are talking about fish, all are Italian white wines. However, we wanted to choose some Italian whites that are maybe a little less known, but still should be relatively easy to find, so we did not choose a Pinot Grigio or a Prosecco, which are probably the best known and most common Italian white wines. And we did not choose a Gavi or a Soave, which we have done some recent episodes on, because we wanted to do some fresh content.
The first wine we chose is called a Vermentino, and the Vermentino we bought is Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino, and this wine comes from the large island off the coast of Italy called Sardinia.
On the island of Sardinia, Vermentino is the most well known white wine grape grown, and this grape is also found in other nearby areas like the Languedoc region of France and in other areas of Italy like Liguria, where it is called Pigato, Piedmont where it is called Favorita, and in Tuscany where it is called Vermentino. I think the Italians just try to wear us out with different names for things.
Some people consider the Vermentino from Sardinia to be the best, and it is supposed to have good citrus and saline notes, and solid acidity, so it should be a really good food and seafood wine, but we will see!
The next wine we chose sounds like a cheese, but it is not. It is a wine called Pecorino. The specific wine we selected is called Umani Ronchi Terre di Chieti Vellodoro Pecorino. Which is a mouthful.
Pecorino is a white wine grape that grows in many regions of Italy, but this specific wine comes from the Abruzzo area, which is where most of the Pecorino production comes from. Abruzzo is a central Italian province that is directly east of Rome.
Evidently, Pecorino was a wine that almost stopped being produced in any meaningful quantities, but since the mid-1990’s, it has been making a comeback. In fact, some are calling it one of Italy’s hottest wines.
Sometimes this wine, and Vermentino, can be fermented or stored in oak, but this particular wine is fermented in stainless steel and does not go through malolactic fermentation, so I am expecting a nice, snappy acidic wine that should go great with food. And, it is sometimes compared to Sauvignon Blanc. I am excited about this one.
You may ask why it is called Pecorino, because most of the time we hear Pecorino associated with cheese - Pecorino is technically cheese made from sheep’s milk - and most famously for Pecorino Romano cheese. This wine has a cute sheep on the label, and this grape is often known as the “grape of the sheep.” It’s not totally clear why it is called Pecorino, but it does grow in areas where there is a lot of sheep farming and there were a lot of sheep trails up and down Italy, and Pecora means sheep, so there is obviously a connection between the two. Some say maybe it was a grape that the sheep ate along the trail.
The third wine we are trying today is Zenato Lugana San Benedetto. Lugana is a wine made from a grape called Trebbiano. This winemaker, which has its vineyard in the Lake Garda area of Veneto, calls the grape the Trebbiano di Lugana.
Depending on the source material, there is also a grape called Trebbiano Toscano which is also sometimes referred to as being the same as the Ugni Blanc grape which is just called Trebbiano in France.
So, first, this is another one of those Italian wines where the name of the wine is sometimes different from the name of the grape, and second, the number of different names for this grape, and whether or not the grape is the same despite its different names is, frankly, confusing. We’ll go with this wine being Trebbiano Lugana, and I will keep researching to determine if they are the same grape or not.
Evidently, this is also a grape commonly used in balsamic vinegar. So there’s that.
This wine is also fermented in stainless steel tanks, so again, I am expecting some good acidity with this wine. And, again, it comes from the Lake Garda area which is sort of parallel to Lake Como, but is also quite beautiful and very underappreciated by Americans. The wine, too, is sometimes called a “sleeper” - much like Pecorino.
So, we think we have three really good and interesting wines for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and I can hardly wait to try them to see if any or all of them are worthy of a spot at the table!
And, we have some great articles on the Feast of the Seven Fishes and the wines we are serving today in the show notes, so head over to our website and find this episode to get the links.
All right, enough of that jibber jabber, I think it’s time to try some wine!
ARTICLES and LINKS
Vermentino, Pecorino, Trebbiano Lugana pairing tasting and review 25:59
Wine: Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino (Click here to buy this wine. Affiliate link)
Region: Italy, Sardinia
Producer: Argiolas family
Professional Rating: WS 89
What we tasted and smelled in this Vermentino: Peach, tropical fruit, pineapple, sweetness on the smell, citrus, nectarine, floral perfume, sour patch kid, tart or sour, peach sour candy, bitterness, stone, flower bouquet. Good body. Good drinking wine. Similar to Sauvignon Blanc, but with more body.
Food to pair with this Vermentino: Great with seafood. Good with clams, steamed clams and mussels, crab, oysters. A fish wine. Not great with a red sauce or meat. Good with cheese. Good with fried food.
As a reminder on our rating scale, we rate on a scale of 1-10, where 7 and above means that we would buy it, and 4 and below means that we are likely to pour it down the sink, and in-between we are likely to drink it and finish it, but we are probably not going to buy it.
- Joe: 8/10
- Carmela: 7/10
Wine: Umani Ronchi Terre di Chieti Vellodoro Pecorino (Click here to buy this wine. Affiliate link.)
Region: Italy, Abruzzo
Producer: Umani Ronchi
Professional Rating: JS 92, TP 91
What we tasted and smelled in this Pecorino: Very light. Not a ton of smell. Apple, gasoline, fresh, a little bitterness to it, some effervescent, like a wine spritzer, lemon, like lemon water. Very citrusy. Almost no body. Easy drinking.
Food to pair with this Pecorino: Good with seafood.
- Joe: 6/10
- Carmela: 6/10
Wine: Zenato Lugana San Benedetto (Click here to buy this wine. Affiliate link)
Region: Italy, Veneto
Producer: Zenato part of Winebow Wine Brands
Grapes: Trebbiano Lugana / Ugni Blanc
Professional Rating: JS 92
What we tasted and smelled in this Trebbiano Lugana: Pineapple, cotton candy, vanilla, pear, mango, guava, hint of citrus, creamy smell and taste, marshmallow, tart, lemony, papaya. Richness, buttery. Good body. Nice bitterness on the end. Delicious
Food to pair with this Trebbiano Lugana: Great with seafood, and the body of this wine makes it able to stand-up to pasta, red sauce, lasagna, etc. Could be with the whole meal.
- Joe: 8/10
- Carmela: 8/10
Which one of these are you finishing tonight?
Carmela: Zenato Lugana San Benedetto
Joe: Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino
Which is the right wine for The Feast of the Seven Fishes?
Either the Vermentino or the Trebbiano. The Trebbiano has the most flexibility with food.
Taste profiles expected from Vermentino, Pecorino, and Trebbiano Lugana 45:58
- Wine Folly: Lime, grapefruit, green apple, almond, daffodil
- Saline, pineapple, apricots, orange blossom, peaches, mineral
- WS of this wine: poached apricot, raspberry, wild thyme and orange curd. Offers citrus zest and sea salt notes
- Wine Paradigm: Aromas of acacia, jasmine, lemon blossom, yellow fruit and nuts are followed by flavors of apricot, peach, pear and lemon, with a mineral edge and sometimes a slightly spicy finish. Occasionally, these wines can display more tropical fruit flavors (e.g. pineapple) and if oak is used you can expect notes of vanilla.
- Lemon, honey, candied citrus.
- Trebbiano Lugana
- Wine Folly: White peach, lemon, green apple, sea shell, basil
- JS: Pure, mineral and incisive nose with limey, chalky character to the green-apple and citrus aromas. The palate is fresh and more supple, with a medium-to full-bodied frame to the generous citrus fruit. Zesty finish.
- Winery: peaches, citrus, bananas, and herbs, which are underscored by crisp acidity and supple body
Outro and how to find The Wine Pair Podcast 48:30
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