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Dec 6, 2005
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 Wine With . . . Smoked Salmon

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


An always popular holiday-season treat, smoked salmon begs to be accompanied by a fine wine.  An elegant dish, it needs an elegant partner.  Finding a really good match can be tricky, though, since the fish is both delicate and rich, full-flavored and subtly sophisticated.  Add the customary accompaniments--capers, chopped onion, fresh lemon--and many wines will clash with rather than enhance this sumptuous dish. 


We recently sampled fourteen different wines with smoked salmon, trying to figure out why some succeed while others don't.  After all our swirling and sipping, a few things seemed clear.  First, wines with an overt oak presence turn heavy and clunky with this dish.  We sampled a California Sauvignon Blanc, an Oregon Pinot Gris, and a Washington State Chardonnay.  All were tasty on their own, but they all lost much of their fruit and so simply seemed woody with the salmon.  Second, tannin makes the fish taste unpleasantly metallic.  A red Mercurey from Burgundy and a dry rosé from Provence both did so, as to a lesser degree did the oaked whites.  Finally, wines with fruity sweetness, while adequate partners, don't really add anything to the experience.  An Australian Riesling, South African Chenin Blanc, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc made for decent but unexceptional matches.  Much the same was true of a prestige California sparkling wine, again because of its slightly sweet character.


What about the wines that excelled?  Whether still or sparkling, they all were truly dry, and they all had plenty of acidity.  The acid made them seem refreshing, while the dryness made the match seem sophisticated.  Each in its own way allowed this fairly fatty dish to taste leaner and so even more stylish.



Approx. Price






Brut "Special Cuvée"


(Imported by Paterno)





This bottle of one of our favorite non-vintage Champagnes had been in our cellar for a few years, so tasted especially toasty.  Its rich complexity was matched by the rich elegance of the smoked fish.  The partnership was both classy and classic--the gustatory equivalent of Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy, Astaire and Rogers.



Joseph Drouhin,

Chablis Premier Cru Montmains



(Imported by Dreyfus Ashby)




The two oaked Chardonnays we sampled not only lost refinement when paired with the smoked salmon, but also made the dish taste, well, fishy.  This Chablis, however, though made with the same grape variety, offered a restrained balance of fruit and minerality, with nary a hint of wood.  It made for a seamless match, from first sip through the impeccably clean, crisp finish.



Marc Ollivier,

Muscadet Sèvre et Maine


Clos des Briords

"Cuvée Veilles Vignes"


(Imported by LDM Wines, a Louis/ Dressner Selection)






This is an impressively fulsome Muscadet, with echoes of flint and a refreshing but not tart finish.  As one of the friends who was tasting with us noted, "it elongates the flavors of the salmon," giving the fish quite a finish of its own.





Brut "Rosé Sauvage"


(Imported by  Remy Amerique)








First of all, this is a visually gorgeous combination, with the pink bubbly playing off the salmon's own rosy tones.  The harmony continues on the palate, where the Champagne sweeps away the oiliness of the fish with a rush of fizz and a bone dry undertone, bringing the taste buds back to neutral, ready and eager for the next bite (and sip).



Pricipessa Gavia,




(Imported by Banfi Vintners)






This was another example of how the combination of dryness, crispness, and just the right amount of fruit all work together to lighten the fish.  Additionally, the synergy between the wine and the salmon ended with a slight hint of bitterness, something that added a pleasant edginess to the match.