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May 13, 2008
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Wine With. . .Swordfish with Salsa

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


Swordfish, whether grilled, oven baked or pan-sautéed, lends itself beautifully to salsas.  Fresh Mexican tomato salsa, tropical mango salsa, summery peach and fresh basil salsa-all are delicious with swordfish, jazzing the seafood up in a uniquely eye appealing, palate pleasing manner.  We particularly like a cool cucumber- based salsa.  It's not only a snap to make, but also gives us an excuse to prune the small patch of fresh mint that grows so vigorously out on our patio.


On its own, swordfish offers a fairly neutral palate against which almost any wine will shine.  Add a salsa, and the picture becomes a little more challenging since the ingredients common to most salsas--fresh fruit, fresh herbs, jalapeño, vinegar and/or lime juice-can affect the taste of wine.  Because the tannins in red wine are notoriously difficult to tame when paired with any one of these ingredients, we concentrated almost exclusively on whites when we grilled a couple of swordfish steaks and stirred up our salsa.  Actually, we did try one rosé, which turned slightly bitter with the dish, and an Oregon Pinot Noir whose overriding sweetness was jarring with the salsa. None of the whites we tasted were truly terrible with the dish, but a handful of them were exemplary. Regular readers of this column will know that we often find the best wines to pair with a wide variety of different foods are ones that are characterized by well-balanced fruit flavors.  In this instance, however, the opposite was true: the richer and riper the wine, the less appeal it had with the dish.  (On the other hand, very thin delicate wines lost a lot of their appeal with it.)  What worked most deliciously here were qualities that echoed the salsa's own elements, wines with bright, zingy flavors, a touch of minerality perhaps, or an herbal note.  Add to those flavors enough weight to stand up to the swordfish, and the result is gastronomic perfection.




The salsa can be made at the last minute, but it's even better if prepared three or so hours before serving to allow the flavors to meld.


Serves two


For the Salsa:

½ teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 English cucumber, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

2 tablespoons minced fresh mint leaves

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh jalapeño pepper

1 tablespoon minced red onion

2 scallions (white part only) thinly sliced


For the swordfish:

2 swordfish steaks, about ½  pound each

2 tablespoon olive oil (mixed use)

Salt and pepper


To make the salsa: Stir together the sugar, vinegar and lime juice until sugar dissolves. Stir in the remaining salsa ingredients.


Brush the swordfish steaks on both sides with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and salt and pepper them.  Grill over direct heat.




Approx. Price



Beringer, Napa Valley (California) Chardonnay 'Stanly Ranch Vineyard' 2006




While another west coast Chardonnay proved too sweet and oaky to partner well with this particular dish, this single vineyard rendition tasted deliciously graceful and elegant.  Its fruit flavors resembled green apples and lemons more than mangos or pineapples, and the oak stayed happily in the background.




Vincent Girardin, Rully (Burgundy, France) 'Vielles Vignes' 2006

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)






A distinct streak of chalky minerality enhanced this wine as a partner for the swordfish and salsa, making it taste of more than sweet, juicy fruit.  The wine's taught acids also helped, as everything proved well-balanced and harmonious.




Sauvignon Republic Cellars, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2007

(Imported by Sauvignon Republic, Inc.)






The lightest wine we're recommending in terms of body, this vibrant Kiwi displayed so much flavor that the dish never threatened to overpower it.  The herbaceous undertones so characteristic of

New Zealand Sauvignons played especially well with the mint and cilantro in the salsa.  They made this fresh-tasting dish seem even livelier, making us think that Sauvignon Blancs in this style would be especially fine choices with this recipe when dining al fresco come summer.




Tablas Creek, Paso Robles (California) Grenache Blanc 2006




Heady (15.3% alcohol) but balanced, with intriguing flavors of citrus, green apple, and anise, this unusual varietal-unusual, that is, as a stand-alone wine-meshed particularly well with the salsa.  At the same time, its full body provided plenty of stuffing to stand up to the dense, rich fish. 




Valminor, Rias Baixas (Spain) Albarino 2006

(Imported by Kysela Pere et Fils)






The flavors in this wine seemed fresh and spring-like (helped, we're sure, by its somewhat floral bouquet), but its almost fleshy texture provided added substance.  That combination of depth and brightness echoed what made the dish itself so tasty, and so made the pairing work well.