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Wine and Food Wednesday
Pairing Salmon with Wines of Almost Every Stripe

By Charles Olken

Give this notion some thought. If you were asked to name nature’s perfect foods, what would you say? I have friends who swear that the list starts with bacon. And it is hard to argue that a well-cooked slice of good bacon is anything but delicious. But, for me, even ahead of fois gras, good pastrami, a great root beer float from Michael Mina (if you have not had his version, you have not experienced how good a root beer float can be), the answer is salmon. Salmon crudo, gravlax and smoked salmon, salmon cooked in parchment with spring vegetables, pan-grilled salmon, blackened salmon, salmon brushed with honey and curry, teriyaki salmon, salmon cooked in cream with puffed pastry toasts. Yes, all that and more. Bring it on. I love salmon.

And I love the way salmon works with wine. There are not any absolute rights and wrongs in pairing wine with food. If it works for you, well, it works for you even if you drink Petite Sirah with you fresh-shucked bivalves. Below, I have listed some of my favorite salmon preparations in the first column and have listed the wines I prefer with them in the second column—in mixed up order. If you care to play along, have a go at matching them up. If not move to the next paragraph to learn what happens Chez Olken. Our choices may not work for you, but the Olkens like them.

1. Blackened or jerk-seasoned salmon   A. Crisp Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis
2. Slow-baked salmon with honey and curry   B. Oregon or Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
3. Smoked salmon on blini with caviar   C. Rich, balanced Chardonnay
4. Salmon cooked in cream   D. Off-dry Riesling
5. Grilled in butter and shallots salmon filet   E. Fuller-bodied, balanced Pinot Noir
6. Parchment cooked salmon   F. Sauternes
7. Salmon with red miso/sesame glaze   G. Sparkling wine, Champagne

I wish I could promise you fame and fortune if you submit your own ideas on these possible pairings, but I can offer tickets to the upcoming ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Associates) tasting on Saturday, January 29 in San Francisco. These are $70 tickets, and as a sponsor of the event, Connoisseurs’ Guide has a handful to give away. And we will be there in person, at our table, to meet you. You all come.

Here are the Olkens’ choices.

Blackened Salmon—(1-E) It is now two decades since I was summoned to the Cuvaison winery to lunch with its director so that he could tell me the secret to making CGCW even more successful (more maps was the prescription). We were comfortably seated overlooking the Valley when the main course arrived, a butter-poached, jerk-seasoned salmon. And then came the wine, Cuvaison’s Reserve Cabernet. I cringed. Tannic red with salmon? I was wrong. The wine was not only not tannic but it has a softened richness uncommon to a young Cabernet. Still, most young Cabs are going to be tannic, but rich, deep Pinot Noir, a riper wine from the Anderson Valley or the Russian River Valley or a balanced wine from the Santa Lucia Highlands have turned out to be functional equivalents and further proof that some red wines do indeed go with fish.

Slow-baked Salmon brushed with honey and curry—(2-D) I would like to tell you that the Olkens created the recipe for the dish, but the truth is that we adopted it from the Four Season’s cookbook for pork tenderloins as an attempt to add to our small repertoire of recipes we can serve with Sauternes. It turned out, however, that we needed to overload the salmon with honey to meet the richness of the Sauternes. Off-dry Riesling, even a lighter Spatlese, turns out to work better with this dish that has become a family favorite.

Smoked Salmon on blini with caviar—(3-G) There is no wine that is more consumed by the Olkens than sparkling wine/Champagne. Our subscribers have already figured that out because we review both West Coast bubblies and Champagne every year. We serve cold-smoked salmon, and gravlax when we take the time to make it, with toast points, rolled around a “caviar of black olives and eggplant”, on puff pastry squares with homemade sweet onion pickles. Smoked salmon is one reason why salmon is my favorite food; it is hors d’oeuvre, it is first course and it is second course. It can even be served with Sauternes.

Salmon cooked in cream—(4-F) Now for a little name-dropping. In 1978, just a few years after Connoisseurs’ Guide was started, the Olkens organized a trip across the French winoshere in virtually all parts of that wonderful country. We were helped by the then existing French wine advocacy group in this country. Visits to Bouchard Pere et Fils in Burgundy, to Moncontour and others in the Loire, to Margaux, Petrus and Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux and then to Chateau Climens and Chateau D’Yquem took us finally face to face with the Comtes de Lur-Saluces, owner of D’Yquem. After our tour of D’Yquem, he very generously took us to the famous restaurant in the nearby city of Langon, D’Arroze. He chose two dishes for us. Fois gras, which for the French is a standard, and a piece of salmon filet in cream. From that day forward, we have loved this dish. Not so long ago, we tasted a variant in an East Asian Indian restaurant. There, the salmon was place in a crock of the type that might be used for Onion soup. In this restaurant, however, the fluid was coconut mix lightly seasoned with curry. We have tried several times to replicate this dish but sadly not come close enough.

Salmon filet grilled in butter with shallots—(5-C) Take a nice thick salmon filet. Place it in a black skillet with shallots that have been caramelized along with a couple of pats of butter and grill it up on high heat to crisp the edges and leave the center nice and juicy. For me, a sprinkle of soy and I have a great mate for a rich, balanced Chardonnay, but, frankly, we have enjoyed this dish, family favorite and very often served for ourselves, with wines ranging from bubbly to Riesling to lighter Pinot Noir.

Parchment-cooked salmon—(6-A) Mrs. Olken loves to serve this dish as the first course at sit-down dinners for friends and family. She combines the salmon with spring vegetables and white wine in the parchment, seals it up and bakes it in the oven. The fluid in the “bag” effectively steams the fish and adds the flavors of the veggies. When it gets opened at the table, it is both light and tasty. We like a high-acid white like a brisk Sauvignon Blanc or a Chablis as the wine partner.

Salmon with red miso/sesame glaze—(7-B) There are a variety of salmon preparations that will go well with red wine. This one wants a brighter, acid-edge Pinot Noir like those from Oregon or the Sonoma Coast.

And, now its your turn. Connoisseurs’ Guide has tickets to ZAP for you when you respond with comments and with your own ideas.


Okay wait
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/12/2011 8:48:12 AM

The prize is tickets to ZAP?

by Christian Miller
Posted on:1/13/2011 5:01:59 PM

Ignore the Mistress of Snark above >:^) - grilled salmon with a red wine and lingonberry or cranberry sauce is a nice mate for lighter styled Zins.

Chez les Millers, we are very fond of salmon poached in a bouillon of salty water, white wine, lemongrass and shallots. Garnished with just lemon, or a green puree of parsley, shallots, tarragon vinegar and olive oil. Grassy Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling, please. 

And you forgot to mention the classic Troisgros Salmon with Sorrel Cream - awesome with aged Chablis or Gruner.

Ignore me?!
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:1/14/2011 8:21:09 AM

Well I've always wanted to be somebody's mistress, Snark is as good as anyone. I must warn you though, I'm kind of like a rash, the more you ignore me the more irritating I get.


I loathe fruit and fruit sauces on my meats, I prefer to let the wine be the fruit at the table so I don't see any Zin paired cranberry fish in my future but I will keep the pairing in mind should someone ask. I will tell you that whenever someone wants a red for Mac & Cheese I always tell them, "Well shit. Go big or go home" and hand them a bottle of some Zin with a bunch of junk in the trunk....

The Mistress of Snark
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:1/14/2011 9:56:05 AM

High-acid fruit like cranberry are as much seasoning as they are fruit, and while my palate runs away from sweet into savory, I certainly get that zesty fruits like lingonberries or cranberries would help direct the salmon dish towards a light and zesty Zinfandel.

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