Since smoked salmon has an assertive flavor and oily texture, it benefits from pairing with a subtle, low-alcohol wine with enough acidity to cut through the fats. This is not the time to bring out a fine-tasting wine with a full body. Rather, salmon calls for wines that mirror its lemon and citrus garnish or that complement its buttery flavor if used in a sauce.
Champagne’s apparently natural affinity with smoked salmon is not just because the two are often served together at dining events. Rather, champagne’s dry finish and sparkle provide a tantalizing match for smoked salmon canapes or slices. Wine Enthusiast suggests a Brut Blanc de Blancs, but by no means is the choice restricted to white champagne. Food and Wine, for example, recommends experimentation with a fuller-bodied Rose Champagne. By the same token, rose wines should not be overlooked for serving with salmon, not least because of the similarity in color. Provence Rose and Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon Rosado are sufficiently dry, whereas a Rose d’Anjou would be too sweet.
Light, crisp, dry whites offer the most balanced foil for the fats in smoked salmon, whereas delicate tasting whites such as Californian Chardonnays will be overwhelmed. Loire Sauvignons, such as Sancerre, bring subtle gooseberry notes that pair well, while New World Sauvignons are fine as long as their asparagus and herb notes are not too pronounced. Chablis’ crisp acidity copes well with the oiliness in salmon, while Chenin Blanc and White Zinfandel set off the smoke flavors and balance the saltiness with aplomb.
The adage that only white wines can accompany fish stems from the fact that tannins in red wine compete too brutally with the oils in fish. However, some lighter body reds are acceptable, such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella Rio Albo. In fact, the best reds are those that resemble whites in character, such as the Burgundy Pinot Noir or the Pacific Northwest Pinot Noirs, the latter of which have the added bonus of matching wild salmon’s natural territory. While Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon is too harsh a juxtaposition, Merlot has the flexibility to pair with salmon.
Alsatian wine connoisseurs have long paired medium dry and rieslings with their smoked salmon, steering clear of the sweeter ones. A very dry Trocken or earthy Rheingau pairs well, according to the West Cork Times. The slightly oily Gewrztraminer is more of an acquired taste, but a consistent hit in the Alsace region. Where salmon is not served with lemon, for example in pasta or with scrambled eggs, opt for a white Burgundy such as Chablis or Meursault for its perceptibly buttery flavor, or a dry Australian Semillon. If serving salmon as part of a seafood platter including shrimp and crab, a sweeter Muscadet is acceptable, or a Chenin Blanc from the Loire for its honeyed flavor and apricot or peach notes.
References and ResourcesMatching Food and Wine: Pairings, 10 Different Drinks to Pair with Smoked Salmon
Clarke’s Salmon Smokery: Pairing Wine and Smoked Salmon
Berry Bros & Rudd: Food and Wine Matching – Fish
Food and Wine: Rose Champagne Debate
The Globe and Mail: Which Wines to Pair With Salmon
Wine Enthusiast: Pairing Food and Wine, Approaches and Guidelines
West Cork Times: Which Wine for Smoked Salmon?
Star Chefs: Red Wine and Fish Made Easy