June 25, 2020

The Best Wines to Drink With Salmon

Wall Street Journal Logoby Lettie Teague

“If chicken is both the world’s most popular and least respected protein, then salmon must surely claim second place. Dubbed ‘chicken of the sea’ by sommeliers, this pink, meaty fish is a frequent default for diners who don’t want something too challenging or complex. But how well does the sea chicken actually go with wine?

That question occurred to me recently while I was eating Atlantic salmon with an excellent Gilbert Picq Chablis. When Covid-19 forced restaurants to close, I found myself cooking more fish, especially salmon, and I wasn’t alone. According to Drew Cherry, editor of IntraFish, a top seafood and aquaculture trade news website, there has been ‘panic buying’ of salmon since early March. Nielsen numbers, too, reflect an upsurge: In the 14-week period ending June 6, retail salmon sales were higher by 34% over the same time frame last year. (Fish sales overall were up 27%.)

Oregon, whose salmon fishery and local wineries are central to its regional cuisine, seemed like a logical place to start.

Atlantic salmon, the most popular of the various types, is so widely available because it’s the most widely farmed—from Norway to Scotland, Chile and Canada. And it’s cheap: I’ve purchased Atlantic salmon for as little as $9 a pound. But it can be bland, which means many people (including me) tend to think it pairs with just about anything, or perhaps that it doesn’t warrant much thought at all. But as I discovered with my Gilbert Picq Chablis, a fatty, bland fish and a high-acid white do not make a great match. Clearly I needed to think more about pairing if I was going to have better salmon dinners at home.

Atlantic’s popularity aside, there are less common, often more expensive and more interesting salmon in the sea—and they’re all from the West Coast. Unlike generic ‘Atlantic,’ the Pacific fish have distinguishing names: coho, Chinook (aka king) and sockeye are the three main types; though the first two are sometimes farmed, all three are caught wild. (Two other types, pink and chum salmon, are commonly sold canned or cured.) Wild Pacific salmon is reliably leaner and meatier, with a fuller flavor than farmed Atlantic salmon. When it comes to wine pairing, wild salmon don’t need as much ‘assistance’ as their farmed counterparts.

My Oregon-born friend Gabrielle observes salmon season—in Oregon, generally April through October—by eating the fish several times a week. Though she lives in New Jersey now, she eats wild- caught Pacific species exclusively, as she considers Atlantic salmon ‘the Velveeta of salmon.’ And she pairs her coho, Chinook and sockeye with Oregon wine.

Gabrielle is as devoted to salmon as I am to wine, and all my best home-cooked salmon dinners have been at her home. When she offered to hold a (socially distanced) dinner of various types and preparations of Pacific salmon at her house, I promised to bring appropriate wines along.

Since I knew Atlantic salmon wouldn’t be served at Gabrielle’s table on that or any other night, I focused on finding bottles that might be a match for wild Pacific salmon. It seemed logical to start with Gabrielle’s own choice: wines from Oregon, a state whose salmon fishery and local wineries are central to its regional cuisine.

The Oregon wines I brought to Gabrielle’s house included one Chardonnay, two Pinot Noirs and a sparkling from Argyle, Oregon’s best-known Champagne-method sparkling wine house. While I opened the Argyle, Gabrielle told a charming story of having once served an Argyle bubbly to a French friend visiting from Paris. ‘He loved it,’ she recalled with evident Oregonian pride.

The Pinot Noir-dominant 2015 Argyle Vintage Brut was an ideal match with all three of the salmon dishes Gabrielle served. She had smoked her own gravlax, grilled Copper River salmon with oregano and za’atar, and cedar-smoked and grilled some coho. This sparkler was especially terrific with the gravlax: Its crisp acidity cut through the smokiness, and that Pinot richness countered the saltiness.

Founding Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles, who now runs his own outfit, Roco Winery, agreed that with salmon, Argyle’s Pinot-Noir-dominant sparkling wine is a match that ‘sings.’ He was less keen on serving the fish with still Pinot Noir. ‘Salmon has been the number one culprit when I get a complaint that my Pinot tastes wrong or metallic,’ he said. He prefers to pair salmon with Oregon Pinot Gris.

The one Chardonnay I’d chosen, the 2017 The Eyrie Vineyards Oregon Chardonnay, was simply too light and too delicate for any of the salmon dishes, while the two (still) Pinot Noirs proved a mixed bag. The 2018 Cristom Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Pinot Noir ($30) was too rich, oaky and powerful for the salmon. It clashed with rather than complemented the strong flavors of the fish. The 2017 Bethel Heights Vineyard Eola-Amity Hills Estate Pinot Noir ($30), meanwhile—lithe and bright, without overt fruit or excess oak—didn’t dominate the salmon but, rather, slipped right in beside it.

When I contacted Bethel Heights co-owner Pat Dudley and winemaker Ben Casteel (Mr. Dudley’s nephew) to praise the match, Mr. Dudley replied that he thought the ‘delicacy’ of the vintage (a cool one) made it a more suitable salmon wine than a Pinot from the warmer vintages of 2016 or 2018 would be. (Warmer vintages tend to produce richer, more alcoholic wines.) ‘And the defining acidity of the 2017 vintage can really tackle a fatty fish like salmon or—better yet, in Ben’s opinion—a nice fatty cut of pork.’

Wishing to be thorough and to satisfy readers who buy Atlantic salmon, I did some experimenting with that fish at my own house—though I stuck with Oregon wines for my salmon trial too. For a salmon baked with a soy-sauce-brown-sugar marinade, I chose Pinot Gris, the underrated white grape of the state, from two of its best-known wineries: the 2018 King Estate Willamette Valley Pinot Gris ($15) and the 2018 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris ($15). Pinot Gris can have the body and richness of Chardonnay but tends to have lower acidity—much lower than, say, Chablis.

Both wines paired quite well with the salmon dish, but the latter one had an edge I enjoyed—crisp, with good acidity, but also enough body and richness to act as complement to the fish. When I contacted Joe Ibrahim, winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards, to congratulate him on his wine’s salmon suitability, he didn’t seem surprised. ‘We call our Pinot Gris ‘the salmon wine,’ ‘ he wrote in an email. He even suggested a couple other preparations: Pinot Gris is a good match for grilled salmon, Mr. Ibrahim advised, and also ‘blackened/spicy seasoned salmon, as the balanced fruit flavors [of the wine] both complement and cut through the spice.’

With people venturing back to restaurants and spending less time at home, I wonder if retail sales of salmon, Pacific and Atlantic both, will decline. For my part, I will be buying better salmon, more often (though never as fanatically as Gabrielle). And I pledge to pay more attention to its pairing with wine.

2015 Argyle Vintage Brut
This Pinot-Noir-dominant, Champagne-method wine from Oregon’s best-known sparkling-wine house is lush but polished, with a bright acidity that pairs especially well with smoked or grilled salmon.”

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