Talk to enough wine people, and the subject of pinot noir and salmon eventually comes up. For one thing, it’s still considered trendy (even though though Josh Wesson and David Rosengarten wrote a book called Red Wine with Fish almost 20 years ago). For another, it has to do with pinot noir, and that is still considered tres chic in many wine circles.
Which led to a Wine Curmudgeon moment: What about this pinot noir and salmon? Does it really work? Or is it just more winespeak to wade through?
So I paired three pinots, costing $10, $22, and $40, with steamed salmon served with rice noodles and vegetable and saffron broth, to test the theory. And, to make sure the salmon was up to the task, I used wild Copper River salmon instead of a milder, grocery store product. My thinking: The more flavorful the salmon, the more challenge it would pose to the wine, especially for the $10 bottle.
The result? There really is something there, even with the $10 pinot. It’s a terrific combination, and the wine complemented the fish in ways I didn’t expect. Its berry fruitiness was a welcome contrast to the briny, sea-like flavor of the salmon (as well as the saffron vegetable broth). In addition, the best pinot had an earthiness that matched the wild flavor of the salmon.
Usually, wine writers conclude that pinot noir and salmon works because the fish is oily and the wine is bright and acidic, so that the latter cuts the former. There is probably something to that, but what I thought was more important was that the pinots had much milder tannins than red wines like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The milder tannins (the chemical in red wine that makes the mouth pucker and helps it age) didn’t mask the flavor of the fish the way tannins from cabernet would have.
The biggest surprise of the three pinots was the $10 Red Bicyclette 2005 from the south of France. It didn’t have much pinot character, but it was sufficiently fruity and it didn’t have the harsh tannins typical of so many inexpensive red wines. I actually drank more of this than I did the better wines, just because I couldn’t believe it worked so well.
The best match came from Sanford Winery’s $40 Pinot Noir Barrel Select La Rinconada 2004. Sanford is one of California’s best pinot producers, and this is a wonderful example. It’s a lovely wine with soft tannins, a touch of Burgundian rusticity, and an amazing California-style fruitiness that holds everything together.
The least successful – though still completely acceptable -- was the $22 Willamette Valley Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir 2005. This wine features Oregon’s candied fruit style, which isn’t quite low key enough for salmon. Still, that it worked proves that pinot and salmon are more than tres chic. They’re good together.