Grilled, roasted, steamed or smoked… There is perhaps no fish more versatile than salmon. This is a rich, oily fish by nature, with pink to orange flesh revealing tons of great flavor. Salmon is delicate enough to enjoy simply baked in foil with lemon and herbs, but hearty enough to stand up to a number of more rigorous preparations. And while rich, full-bodied white wines generally pair well with most salmon recipes, some preparations may be more interesting when served with sparkling wines, rosé or red wine. When selecting a wine pairing with salmon, it is crucial to consider the preparation technique of the fish, as well as the seasonings and sauces used to add flavor and texture. To help you make the right choice, we have put together a simple guide with some common salmon preparations and wine styles with which to serve them.
Cold smoked, hot smoked, lox, gravlax, terrine… Smoked salmon comes in many different forms. This ingredient is an integral part of the classic New York bagel, finding its place just as easily with poached eggs at brunch as on bliny at cocktail hour. As smoked salmon has quite an oily texture and strong, assertive flavor, the best pairings tend to be subtle and elegant wines with a high enough acidity to cut through the fat.
We recommend a Champagne (especially a Blanc de Blancs made exclusively with Chardonnay), a Vouvray, or another “traditional method” sparkling wine. A crisp and mineral Chablis or bone-dry Riesling from Alsace could also pair nicely. These refreshing white wines will counteract the oily nature of the salmon, bringing the pairing to a harmony.
Salmon served raw in Japanese preparations, such as sushi, sashimi or nigiri, go best with light-bodied, crisp wines that are slightly chilled. For example, the bright citrus flavors and minerality of a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre will match the freshness and delicacy of the fish, further emphasizing these qualities. This crisp and fresh style of wine will also match salmon recipes with lemon and fresh herbs (like dill or thyme). Or, choose a rosé wine from Cotes de Provence, a perfect match to raw salmon in both color and flavor.
A creamy beurre blanc or hollandaise sauce slathered over the top of a roasted salmon filet can do wonders with this ingredient, bringing to the forefront its tender, flaky texture. In this case, your safest bet will be an oak-aged Chardonnay, such as a white Burgundy, whose round, full, voluptuous body will match the weight and mouthfeel of the creamy salmon dish.
In general, salmon is quite a meaty fish, and - as such - certain preparations will go nicely with a lighter-bodied red wine. For a salmon grilled over charcoal or wood, the classic wine pairing is a Pinot Noir from Oregon. The bright cherry aromas and earthy nuances of this grape variety will marry perfectly with the charred, caramelized salmon, while its high natural acidity will combat any excess oiliness. Another good match is a Gamay from a Beaujolais Cru (like Fleurie, Morgon or Saint-Amour), whose very light tannins will not overpower the texture of the fish.
Grilled salmon will also be delicious with a fuller-bodied white, like a Viognier from Condrieu, whose voluptuous, slightly “oily” texture will be congruent with the texture of the fish, thus further enhancing these qualities of our star ingredient.
A pan-seared blackened salmon, sporting a crispy crust of spices, like cayenne and black pepper, tend to have a spicy, smoky flavor which are balanced beautifully by equally spicy, though still light-bodied, red wines. For the perfect pairing, try a Zinfandel from California or a Grenache-based wine from the southern Rhone Valley. Another way to handle a spicy salmon recipe is by making it harmonize with a contrasting flavor, such as the ripe stone fruit of an off-dry Riesling from Germany. The slight hint of sweetness in a glass of off-dry Riesling will soothe the spice in dishes like a tandoori salmon or an oven-baked salmon with a sriracha sauce.
Finally, a slow-roasted salmon lacquered in a slightly sweet, sour and umami glaze of soy or miso will go nicely with a bolder style of rosé (like a Tavel) or a Pinot Gris from Alsace. If the glaze contains ginger, maple, molasses, brown sugar or warm autumn spices, we recommend pairing with an aromatic white wine like a Gewürztraminer, whose tropical fruit and gingerbread flavors will match those of the lacquer perfectly.
As with any food, and especially an ingredient as highly versatile as salmon, the perfect wine pairing will depend largely on cooking style and seasoning. A salty, cured salmon on toast will have little in common with a flaky and delicate poached salmon filet and even less with a slow-roasted salmon steak lacquered with a ginger and soy glaze. So, it only makes sense that the wines pairing to these dishes also be vastly different. And while some wine pairings with salmon emphasize the congruent nature of the wine and dish (like full-bodied, oily Viognier with full-flavored, oily grilled salmon), others work well precisely because of the balance achieved by the contrasting nature of the two (off-dry Riesling with spice-rubbed salmon). Salmon is one of our favorite ingredients for wine pairing, whose versatility makes it an excellent choice for training your palate.