Salmon that’s been grilled or heavily spiced often goes much better with a more tannin-centric red wine than with a white. Image source: Pexels User Pixabay
You might remember a scene from one of the old, Sean Connery James Bond movies in which Bond is betrayed by a spy who he thought was on his side. The two are eating together, and they both order sole, but Bond asks for a white wine to go with his sole, and the other spy asks for a red wine. Of course, the choice of red wine turns out to be a way for the other spy to keep track of which glass he’s spiked with a knockout drug. Bond reflects on it later, saying, “Red wine with fish. That should’ve told me something.”
Drinking red wine with fish is still considered somewhat suspicious by many, but chefs, food lovers, and sommeliers have begun to recognize the grey areas when it comes to the “no red wine with fish” rule. I suppose the maxim was supposed to make life easier. Pairing wine and food can be tricky and rules like this have served as basic guidance—but they don’t recognize nuance. The wine and fish issue isn’t black and white, and red wine and fish can actually be a great match.
Compare and Contrast
A good wine pairing either compliments the food it’s served with (think of a powerful, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon with a bloody, pepper-crusted grilled New York steak) or it offers a refreshing contrast to highlight the relative merits of the food and the wine (buttery sautéed sea scallops served with a crisp, palate-cleansing Sauvignon Blanc is a good example of opposites attracting).
Salmon is one of my favorite fishes to cook (and eat) because of its versatility. It’s great just about anyway you cook it—on the grill, sauteed, under the broiler, smoked, or even served raw. But all that variation can make matching it with the right wine a challenge.
Learning what wines to pair with what preparations of salmon has helped me understand the broader principles of food and wine pairing. Pinot Noir is often touted as the go-to match for salmon, but it’s not always that simple. Here are some rules of thumb I follow when cooking salmon.
Rule No. 1: Consider Your Ingredients
Good, fresh salmon needs little else to make it delicious. Still, when was the last time you made it without some kind of sauce, marinade, or spice mixture? It’s these ingredients that play off and enhance the flavors of the fish. It can be as simple as salt, pepper, lemon, and butter or it can get considerably more complicated. Here’s my first rule of thumb: bolder ingredients go well with bolder wine. That means that using any meaty, smoky, and roasted flavors, or any bold herbs or herb combinations with your salmon probably make a red wine a safe choice with the dish.
However, a wine with too much tannin like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot would likely overwhelm and even clash with the salmon. Cooking salmon with aromatic spices like coriander, rosemary, and black pepper makes me think of a racy Pinot Noir or an herbaceous Sangiovese, since these herbs lend big, hearty flavors. Any use of bacon, roasted vegetables or pimenton (smoked paprika) also make red wine the way to go, as most white wines would get bowled over by those flavors. A Beaujolais will likely be an excellent match for any salmon dish with these ingredients.
Rule No. 2: Think About the Texture of the Salmon Dish
Did you know all wine grapes are white inside? It’s only the skin that determines what’s a red wine and what’s a white. But that skin makes all the difference. Red wine grape skins have tannin and other flavor compounds that make red wines taste bigger, bolder, chewier, and more robust than their pale skinned brothers and sisters. But when it comes to making salmon with a silky butter or cream-based sauce, those chewy, puckery flavors are a liability. A big Chardonnay or a steely, dry Riesling is the way to go instead. Cream-based sauces have an inherent sweetness that matches the oily richness of salmon and a crisp white wine elevates the flavor of the salmon and the sauce without overwhelming any delicate flavors.
Rule No. 3: Pay Attention to the Cooking Technique Being Used
Deep-fried fish and red wine? No good. Same with most sautéed seafood dishes. But for salmon that’s roasted, grilled or (sometimes) baked, red wine is the way to go here. It’s another example of pairing like with like. Grill marks, crusty exteriors, and caramelization produce bold flavors that need a bold wine bring them out. Baked fish dishes can go red or white depending on the ingredients they use (see rule number one!). For a grilled salmon recipe, try a Pinot Noir, Carignan, or a Grenache--a red wine that’s midway between a Pinot and a fuller bodied Syrah.
Rule No. 4: Salmon with Asian Flavors Loves Rosé
Asian dishes made with soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, and spicy ingredients like wasabi or chili oil can be tricky to pair with wine because their savory-sweet flavors throw off most red wines. But white wines that are too acidic and dry will also clash. That’s why rosé is perfect for these Asian-inspired recipes. Rosé, made from Pinot Noir or Grenache grapes, splits the difference between a red and white wine. Find one that’s not too dry, and its fresh and juicy flavors and residual sugars will play up the piquancy in dishes like salmon poke and salmon marinated in fresh ginger, garlic and soy sauce.
Good Wine Needs Fresh Salmon
If you’re going to spend good money on wine, it makes sense to pair it with the best quality salmon. Ordering your salmon online from Daily Fresh Fish not only means you’ll get it the next day if you order before 2pm, but it means you’ll get the freshest salmon on the market because it doesn’t sit in a grocery store display case--it goes straight from our dock to your door. It’s also always hand-filleted, minimally handled, and sustainably farmed or caught. Cheers to that.