Pinot Gris: Navarro Vineyards 2014, Anderson Valley, CA – Pairing Rating: 8.5 out of 10.0
Verdicchio: Fattoria Laila Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2013, IT – Pairing Rating: 9.0
Chardonnay: Failla 2013 Sonoma Coast, CA – Pairing Rating: 9.5
To be very clear at the outset, all of the above wines are superb and are regarded as excellent expressions of their varietals. So why do some of the wines have lower ratings? Our ratings reflect how we believe the wines pair with specific foods. We start with great wines, look for noteworthy dishes that you may order in a restaurant or prepare at home, and then sort out the reasons why some wines pair better than others. Our ratings relate only to the pairing, not the wines themselves. But you probably knew that. Sorry.
On to the matter at hand. Chefs treat Salmon like an athlete trying to play above his or her game. They grill it, smoke it, pour Hollandaise on it, grind it into seasoned burgers . . . anything to amp up the flavor. Why? Poach a salmon steak with nothing on it and tell us what you think! If this fish can take performance enhancement, then let’s get serious. How about Anchovy-Garlic-Caper-Lemon Butter Sauce? Salty, full-flavored, acidic and a little fatty. Sounds over-the-top? It isn’t. This New York Times recipe by Melissa Clark is simply terrific! The Alex Rodriguez of salmon recipes.
Our only alteration to Melissa’s recipe is to use white anchovy fillets rather than the overly salty, oily ones sold in jars or cans. You will likely find the more delicate white anchovies at Whole Foods or your local fishmonger. Same flavor, less salt, more finesse.
The important wine pairing components of this Butter Sauce are salt and acidity. And with salt and acidity, the best wines are high acid wines. Furthermore, the sauce flavors are bold, which argues for a wine that is full-flavored. So we went to work.
First up was a 2014 Pinot Gris from Navarro Vineyards of Anderson Valley, CA ($20). Same grape as Pinot Grigio but grown outside of Northern Italy. This grape was one of the ones recommended by the New York Times to pair with the dish, but we were skeptical. The color – pale yellow; the nose – honeysuckle; the palate – light, citrusy and refreshing, but with a short finish. The Pinot Gris was a delightful cocktail wine, with subtle richness for delicate fare, but too delicate for the full flavors of this dish. We had to move on.
Next up was a Verdicchio from the Castelli di Jesi appellation in the region known as Marche. The appellation is east of Tuscany, midway between the Apennines and the Adriatic, realizing the benefits of both in terms of climate. The Verdicchio Classico Superiore 2013 from Fattoria Laila ($12) delivered more acidity than the Pinot Gris, with lime, peach and unripe Honeydew notes. Verdicchio’s characteristic “bitter almond” flavor was more like hazelnut from this producer. The finish was somewhat tart and longer than the Gris. While the wine delivered the requisite acidity, it lacked the round mouthfeel demanded by the butter sauce. We love this wine with simple grilled fish or even a fish stew, but this Salmon recipe demanded more.
The last wine we tried was the 2013 Failla Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast of CA ($31). Grapes from this far north and west (i.e. Fort Ross – Seaview AVA) are typically grown at higher altitudes and are exposed to more marine influences. The cooler climate allows the acidity and freshness to come through, while cellar techniques like long, cold fermentation on the lees (spent yeast cells) build texture. The nose on the Failla was very clean, rich with white flowers and Meyer lemon. On the palate, the wine offered a beautiful balance of citrus acidity, minerality and subtle oak. The round finish was long and dry, authoritatively taking on the salt of the sauce. We thought this Chardonnay was near-perfect with the demanding flavors of the sauce.
Homework assignment: make this Salmon recipe, but be careful not to overcook the fish. And hunt down both the Failla Chardonnay as well as the Verdicchio. The Villa Bucci Superiore ($20) and Garofoli’s Podium ($25) are two other Verdicchio’s to seek out. Enjoy!