What Goes Swimmingly With Salmon
America's most popular seafood after shrimp, salmon has clearly rebounded from its 1970s image. But even back then, some people knew the truth. Three decades ago, while Karen sulked over the tinny canned salmon she was occasionally served as a kid in the Midwest, Andrew was swooning over the rich, buttery flavor and silky texture of the wild salmon he tasted while working one summer in a salmon fishery in Alaska.
Wild salmon has since become a seasonal staple of better restaurants and gourmet markets. With less fat and more flavor than farm-raised salmon, it continues to attract new fans on its own -- to say nothing of the near-evangelical converts who have been won over after tasting it with a great pinot noir. Once you sample that exquisite pairing, you can't help but see the light: The match is about as close to perfection as you'll find.
"If you think 'salmon,' you automatically think 'Pacific Northwest' -- and Oregon pinot noir with wild salmon is symbiotic," says Doug Mohr, manager and sommelier of Washington's Vidalia restaurant. He particularly likes the 2004 the Four Graces Pinot Noir Estate ($25) from the Willamette Valley. "Wild salmon eat a diet of shellfish, which translates into their meat being sweet -- which plays off the natural cherrylike sweetness of Oregon pinot noir. Pinot's weight and tannin level do not overpower salmon, and its acidity cuts the richness of the fish."
At the Herbfarm, about 20 miles outside Seattle in Woodinville, Wash., customers vie for a coveted reservation to sample the celebrated restaurant's seasonal spring-run king salmon with crispy skin and morels -- almost invariably accompanied by an Oregon pinot noir from an award-winning wine list. "Salmon's quality, due to scrupulous handling, has never been higher," owner Ron Zimmerman told us in a recent e-mail. "Pinot noir is by definition a wine of small lots. However, among the myriad of Oregon pinot noirs that make it inside the Beltway, Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir is a good bet."
Burgundy, of course, is the original home of great pinot noir, and top sommeliers have long waxed poetic about the exquisite combination of grilled wild salmon with Burgundies -- even more so today, given "the embarrassment of riches offered by the extraordinary 2005 vintage," according to Michael Flynn of Kinkead's and Colvin Run Tavern. When we asked Flynn to suggest a couple of red Burgundies that wouldn't break the bank, he recommended the 2005 François Mikulski Bourgogne Haute Cote de Beaune ($20) and the 2005 Bouchard Pere et Fils Bourgogne Pinot Noir ($18) as "gorgeous wines, with ripe fruit, good acidity and brown spice earth notes."
"Bouchard is a formerly staid house that's now one of Burgundy's shining stars," Flynn says. "It's one of the most improved of the region's larger houses."
Mohr advises looking for a 2005 red Burgundy even among entry-level wines that are not from top producers. "You will find great values starting at around $13 a bottle, since 2005 was such a strong vintage," he promises, adding: "It seems crazy that we are talking about affordable pinot noirs and we are going back to Burgundy! But today, California pinots are priced as high as the market will bear."
Admittedly, sometimes a guest -- or a dish -- will call for a white wine with salmon. Poaching salmon, for example, accentuates its richness and suggests an equally rich white. In such instances, Flynn turns to 2005 Landmark "Overlook" Chardonnay from California ($26). "It's lightly oaked, with apple and pear fruit flavors, good acidity and a nice, attenuated finish," he says.
Vidalia serves a wild ivory salmon, marked by its pale color and more delicate texture and flavor, that is roasted with a sweet Vidalia onion puree and served with fiddlehead ferns and a morel sauce with a little bacon. While the Four Graces pinot noir is a good match with salmon, Mohr often pairs this dish with a 2005 Palacios Remondo "Plácet" Rioja Blanco ($20), which, he raves, is "a stunner."
"It is made of 100 percent Viura grapes and has delicate peach and citrus fruit flavors to it," he says. "Its rich texture makes it very elegant: It's like 'Burgundy meets Chablis in Spain.' "
During his summer of Alaska's perpetual brightness, Andrew usually had to settle for accompanying his salmon with tall cans of beer, because the only wine carried at the Clam Gulch gas-station-cum-liquor store was a shudder-inducing 17.5-percent-
alcohol Thunderbird. He would have traded his favorite sunglasses for a bottle as good as either of the two we tried at home the other night with Copper River salmon. A 2006 Tamar Ridge "Devil's Corner" Pinot Noir ($17), an intriguing Old World-style Tasmanian wine, and a 2006 Willamette Valley Vineyards "Whole Cluster Fermented" Pinot Noir ($17), bursting with cherries, each brought out the best of our simply grilled fish.