Sunday, July 1, 2007

Salmon & Pinot

In their latest column for the Washington Post, Page & Dornenburg extol the virtues of a very popular -- and increasingly dogmatic -- food and wine pairing: wild salmon and New World pinot noir. The pairing brings together two important trends in the American culinary scene -- the greater availability of fresh, wild Alaskan salmon in the continental U.S. and the wild popularity of all things pinot. The writers quote Doug Mohr, sommelier at Vidalia, who offers the party line: "If you think 'salmon,' you automatically think Pacific Northwest -- and Oregon pinot noir with wild salmon is symbiotic. Wild salmon eat a diet of shellfish, which translates into their meat being sweet -- which plays off the natural cherrylike sweetness of Oregon pinot noir."

With all due respect to Mr. Mohr -- whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and who is one of the finest sommeliers in D.C. -- I have to disagree. I've always found the inherent "cherrylike sweetness" of New World pinot -- whether from Oregon, or California, or New Zealand -- to be cloying, rather than symbiotic, when paired with the richness of wild Alaskan salmon. A recent tasting of Copper River King salmon (ordered fresh from a Seattle fishmonger and simply grilled) confirmed for my palate the unhappiness of this pairing. Unlike the magical union of foie gras and Sauternes -- where sweetness enhances sweetness -- the pairing of salmon and New World pinot is a profound mismatch, with sweetness overwhelming sweetness. Salmon cries out for something more savory, something more minerally.

I'm reminded of the words of Pierre-Antoine Rovani -- Parker's longtime collaborator at the Wine Advocate -- who once observed: "As much as it's politically incorrect to say it, I believe that nobody would sing the virtues of matching Pinot and salmon if Pinot Noir had never been planted in Oregon." Rovani prefers Chardonnay with his salmon and delineates his preferences as follows: "Grilled, with the fatty skin charred into a bacon-like state, calls for a big buttery California Chardonnay. Grilled lightly calls for a Kistler-like bottle. A delicate preparation (like Troisgros's Salmon with Sorel) calls for a white burg from a not-too-rich year, poached with a cream-based sauce calls for a richer burg." I could not agree more, and only wish I had that range of choice in my personal cellar.

So if anyone happens to have, oh, I don't know, a great Montrachet they're willing to share, I'll order up some Yukon River King fillets before the season closes, and we'll have ourselves a proper meal.