Most of the mail I get from readers is pretty straightforward ("Have you tried the new Ridge Zins?" "How long will the 1996 Chateau St. Jean 'Cinq Cepages' age?"). There are times, however, when the most innocuous-sounding letter somehow requires a complex answer. I got such a letter recently, which read simply "What wine goes with salmon?"
I began my answer with, "It depends on the preparation"--admittedly, a bit of a cop-out. But there is truth to it, and I have the recipes and experiences to prove it. Because of its versatility, salmon does not belong soley to any one wine type or style. Instead, the way one pairs wine with salmon is by paying attention to the preparation, not the fish itself.
A favorite dish in our house is salmon poached in parchment with garden herbs, tangy vegetables and white wine. With a preparation like this, I prefer a vibrant, fruity Sauvignon Blanc that leans toward the herbal side of the spectrum. Something like the $** 2000 Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc (Sonoma County, $13). This lively, citrusy, peachy and lightly grassy wine is seductive enough in its own right, but even better with tangy dishes.
I also like the $* 2000 Benziger Family Winery Fume Blanc (Sonoma County, $11), which is reminiscent of the Ferrari-Carano in its light grassiness, but may be a bit less forward. A bit of restraint is sometimes welcome when the fruitiness of the wine might clash with the subtler flavors of the dish.
There are those who insist that a grilled salmon filet wants nothing more as a partner than a Pinot Noir, so long as the wine is not the kind of blockbuster whose depth and ripeness would overpower the dish. I understand that argument, though I will confess that I am also partial to a ripe, rich California Chardonnay with a dish like that.
Two that come immediately to mind are the ** 1999 Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay "Talley-Rincon Vineyard" (Arroyo Grande Valley, $28) and the ** 1999 Villa Mt. Eden Chardonnay "Signature Series" (Bien Nacido Vineyard, $30). The first has a mix of ripe fruit and unctuous texture that is backed up by rich oak and balanced by background acidity. The second is all but unbeatable for richness and breadth, and yet its complex, layered personality comes with a good bit of zesty acidity.
When I do give in to a Pinot Noir, I look first to Oregon and then to Sonoma's Russian River Valley for inspiration. In general, the Pinots from farther south tend to be riper and fatter. While they are wonderful wines in their own right, they are not "salmon wines" for me.
I like the * 1998 Hamacher Pinot Noir (Oregon, $33) for example. The better Oregon wines are often difficult to find in Southern California, but fans of Pinot Noir need to get to know the wines of Eric Hamacher. This deep yet slightly tart effort is the kind of Pinot that goes with salmon and also with rare tuna. Another choice would be the * 1998 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir (Sonoma County, $25), a polished, balanced Pinot with bright, slightly piquant cherry and strawberry fruit and a delicate oaky richness.
Pinot isn't the only red wine you can pair with fish. Lately, I have been trying Zinfandel with blackened salmon, and this can work too, as long as the Zin is balanced and fruity rather than powerful, overripe and tannic. Two recently tasted Zins that have the fruit and balance to go with a blackened or a jerk-seasoned salmon filet are the $* 1999 Chateau Souverain (Dry Creek Valley, $11) and the ** 1999 Seghesio Family Vineyard "Cortina" (Dry Creek Valley, $22).
Even Cabernet Sauvignon can work, as long as it is very rich and not too tannic. I'd recommend ** 1997 Beaulieu Vineyards "Tapestry" (Napa Valley, $40) a Cabernet-based wine of great depth.
"What wine goes with salmon?" the writer asked innocently. A short story ensued.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
*** A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.
** An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.
* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.
No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.
$ Good value for the money.
x Below average quality, to be avoided.