Talk to enough wine people, and the subject of pinot noir and salmon will eventually come up. For one thing, it’s still considered a trendy pairing (even though Josh Wesson of Best Cellars fame co-wrote a book called Red Wine with Fish almost 20 years ago). For another, it has to do with pinot noir, and that is still considered tres chic in many wine circles.

            But is this just winespeak, or does it really work? I paired three pinots of various prices with steamed salmon served with rice noodles and vegetable and saffron broth. The result? There really is something there, even with a $10 pinot. It’s a terrific combination, and the wine complemented the fish in ways I didn’t expect. Its berry fruitiness was a welcome contrast to the briny, sea-like flavor of the salmon (as well as the saffron vegetable broth). In addition, the best pinot had an earthiness that matched the wild flavor of the salmon.

            Usually, wine writers conclude that pinot noir and salmon works because the fish is oily and the wine is bright and acidic, so that the latter cuts the former. There is probably something to that, but more importantly, the pinots had much milder tannins than other red wines. The milder tannins (the chemical in red wine that makes the mouth pucker and helps it age) didn’t mask the flavor of the fish the way tannins from cabernet or merlot would have.

            The biggest surprise of the three pinots was the least expensive, Lulu B 2005 from the south of ($10). It was sufficiently fruity, and it didn’t have the harsh tannins typical of so many inexpensive red wines. I actually drank more of this than I did of the better wines, just because I couldn’t believe it worked so well.

            The best match came from Sanford Winery, which is one of California’s best producers. The Barrel Select La Rinconada 2004 ($40) had soft tannins, Burgundian rusticity, and California-style fruitiness that held everything together. The least successful — though still completely acceptable — was the Willamette Valley Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir 2005 ($20). It had Oregon’s candied fruit style, which wasn’t quite low key enough for salmon.



Steamed salmon with saffron vegetable broth and rice noodles

(Adapted from Alison Barshak, Fine Cooking magazine)

Feel free to change or substitute the vegetables. Just keep in mind that the goal is a very flavorful broth (which makes great soup if you have any left over — throw in some leftover Chinese takeout rice), which is used to steam the salmon. And drink a pinot with it to test the theory yourself.


Serves 4; Takes about 30 minutes


8 oz fennel, cut in 1/4-inch strips

2 cloves garlic, chopped

4 lemon slices, about 1/4-inch thick

1 medium tomato, chopped roughly

1 onion, cut in half and sliced

4 oz chopped leek

1 carrot diced

1/4 tsp saffron threads

Salt and pepper to taste

6 cups water

3 Tbsp olive oil

4 salmon fillets, about 4 oz each, cleaned and skinned

16 oz vermicelli-style rice noodles


1. Prepare the rice noodles according to package directions.

2. Combine everything but the salmon in a in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium high.

3. Place the salmon in a steaming rack (or even a bamboo steamer) and place the rack over the pot with the boiling broth. Steam for about 10 minutes for medium.

4. Serve in wide soup bowls with a portion of the rice noodles, one filet and broth to cover.


Ask the wine guy



That is one of the country’s largest food and wine events, which attracts one-quarter of a million people over four days. This year, it’s set for Sept. 13-16 (for information, go to grapevinetexasusa.com or call 800.457.6338). The highlight is usually the People’s Choice Wine Tasting Classic, where ordinary consumers — 8,000 or so last year — judge Texas wines. It’s unique, perhaps the only wine contest of its size in the country. People’s Choice runs Friday through Sunday, and tickets are in addition to admission to Grapefest. —JEFF SIEGEL

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