by Rick Riozza
Although we desert dwellers are well in to the season already, it’s officially summertime, and what so many of the food columns, restaurant & food markets ads, and knowledgeable backyard grillers are alerting us to is the current catch of the season: salmon.
Who doesn’t love tasty grilled salmon, and, pairing it to a wine that will bump it up another taste appreciation level is an endeavor we vino lovers wish to take on.
Any trepidation of grilling salmon—or any fish really, should burn off immediately after realizing the secret to its grilling is a very hot clean freshly oiled grill. The next step is no more difficult: All chefs agree to keep it simple by seasoning the 6 to 9 oz. salmon steak or filet with salt and pepper, and a light touch of virgin olive oil, then grill flesh side down on lightly oiled grill rack (covered only if using gas grill) for 4 minutes on direct moderate heat; turn fillets over and grill until just cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes more.
Yes one can use a more complex dry rub like Paul Proudhomme’s “Salmon Magic” whose loyal enthusiasts claim it seals in the flavor and moisture in the fish nicely, but whatever you do—don’t over-spice, over marinate or overcook the fish! Just the charring alone will provide the smoke and grilled flavor.
If using wood as fuel or to smoke, salmon does especially well with pecan, cedar, and light doses of hickory.
One of the best all-time simple recipes for grilled salmon is just a sprinkle of grated fresh lime zest on the filet with a dab/tablespoon of lime butter atop right after grilling; it beautifully highlights the flavor of grilled salmon and pairs very well with all the wines recommended below.
It takes only 5 minutes to make the lime butter:
• 1 large garlic clove, chopped
• 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, melted
Purée garlic with lime juice, salt, and pepper in a blender until smooth. With motor running, add melted butter and blend until emulsified, about 30 seconds.
For a long time, the rule of thumb was red wine with meat and white wine with fish. Then we all began to enjoy more “steak-like” fish such as shark, swordfish, tuna—and, salmon. And some were wondering “are we still drinking ‘whites’ with these fish-steaks?” Our salmon catch this season breaks all the color lines: red, white, and rosé.
Remember the more flavor you’re surrounding your salmon with the bolder the wine can be. And if you’re applying a richer sauce when serving the salmon you need a bit more acidic wine.
A tart citrusy choice like Sauvignon Blanc that is almost like a squeeze of lemon at first glance seems right-on—and is cleansing, but a bit one dimensional when compared to what a German Riesling Kabinett or a medium bodied un-oaked Chardonnay can bring to the table, so to speak.
Riesling and salmon work well together. Salmon is a little bit of a fatty fish and for fat you need a little acidity. The German Kabinett has that perfect amount of acidity and a great complexity of aromas and flavors such as green apple and rose petals ( bringing a touch of sweetness), and, minerality that can pick up those desirable briny notes. Look for these wines at Jensen’s Markets and at the 3rd Corner Wine Shop & Bistro; and ask for ones from the Nahe or Rheingau regions.
Good Chardonnays carry good complex aromas and flavors as well, but a medium to heavy oaked Chard can easily overpower even an oily salmon. Look for light oaked wines such as the 2010 Stuhlmuller Chardonnay ($24) from the Alexander Valley. Fritz Stuhlmuller’s wines are beautifully crafted and enhance the meatiness and inherent oily nature of salmon, while the tropical fruits, caramel and oak notes from the wine add complexity to the fish.
The classic pairing is an American Pinot Noir from a cool climate. They are a lighter red that will not overpower the food, carries a flavor profile that enhances the fish, and the fat of the fish buffers any tannins that this wine may have, to give it a great mouth-feel. At the annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival in Northern California, grilled salmon is always a central part of the lunch because it goes so well with the local Pinot Noir. Look for Pinots from the Pacific Northwest as well, such as Castle Rock Willamette Valley at around $20. And I just saw Erath Vineyard wines, also from Oregon, at Costco for around $14.
A “sexy” global choice would be a Pinot Noir from New Zealand or from Argentina. We’ll be seeing these Pinots increase in our markets in the next 5 years because they are a good deal and a good quaff.
The Jaume Cristalino Brut Rosé (a prior CV Weekly Wine of the Week) is still a great buy for this meal at $6 at Pavillons. Not only does the color of the fish and the wine match aesthetically but also the vigor, the fizz, and the acidity of the wine pleasantly cuts through the fleshy and oily salmon.
The grill is on! Cheers!
Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org