Salmon is a hearty, pink-fleshed fish with a high fat content and distinct flavor profile. This healthy delicacy can be poached, grilled, or even served raw as sashimi. However, one of the most popular ways to prepare salmon is to smoke it.
This luxury food item is often enjoyed as a special treat for brunches or celebrations. Smoked salmon goes well with bagels and cream cheese, in a quiche or with scrambled eggs, or on a goat cheese-smeared cracker as a classy canapé.
Known for its intensely concentrated earthy and smoky flavor, smoked salmon might seem difficult to pair with wine. But there are plenty of options for a great smoked salmon wine pairing, including certain bubblies, zesty whites, and even light-bodied reds.
What Is Smoked Salmon?
Smoked salmon involves smoking the fish as a method of preservation or cooking. Hot-smoked salmon is cooked, while cold-smoked salmon is not. Both methods begin by curing and drying the salmon before it's exposed to smoke — this is what imparts the smoky flavor.
How Is Smoked Salmon Made?
Before smoking, the salmon is cut into fillets, rubbed in salt, and left to cure. Salt curing draws out moisture and prevents bacteria from growing. Salmon that is just cured this way and doesn't actually touch smoke is called lox. If herbs are added to the salt brine, it's known as gravlax, a Nordic style of preparation. Though lox and gravlax aren't actually smoked, they get lumped into the smoked salmon category for their similar textures and flavors.
After the curing process, the salmon is dried for a short time (30 minutes to 3 hours), before it is ready to be smoked.
If the salmon is cold-smoked, it is put into a smoker with a temperature that never rises above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is moister and more vibrantly colored than hot-smoked salmon. Hot-smoked salmon is put into a smoker at 150 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and smoked until the internal temperature of the fish is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This cooks the fish and results in a flakier texture.
The curing and drying process intensifies the flavor of the salmon and adds saltiness, while the smoking adds smoky, earthy notes. This powerful combination of flavors might seem tricky to pair with wine, but there are many great options that we'll break down below.
Smoked Salmon Wine Pairing Rules
One general wine-pairing rule is to pair foods and wines that match in texture and weight. This is why red wine is not typically served with fish. Red wine usually overpowers the delicate flavor of white fish, making for a bad pairing. However, since salmon is a heartier fish, it can stand up to heavier wines. While light, zippy white wines are most commonly paired with smoked salmon, medium-bodied whites and even light reds with low tannins can pair just as well.
Another general rule is to match a wine not just to a meal's main protein, but to the accompanying sauces and flavors. If you serve smoked salmon with lemon and crème fraîche, for example, a lighter, zestier white wine will pair well. But if you serve smoked salmon in a creamy pasta dish, a buttery white will complement both the rich sauce and the fish.
On the whole, you don't want to pair smoked salmon with wines that are too sweet, oaky, tannic, or fruity. These strong flavors will compete with the intensity of the smoked salmon and render both the wine and the salmon bland, or worse, throw off the flavors of each. You want to pair smoked salmon with wine that is acidic enough to cut through the fish's fat and has flavor characteristics that complement the flavors of the entire meal.
What To Drink With Smoked Salmon
Champagne or sparkling wine. Champagne is probably the most common smoked salmon wine pairing. Two classically luxurious items, champagne and smoked salmon balance each other out with bubbles and fat. Look for "Blanc de Blancs" on the label — it means that the champagne was made exclusively from white grapes. Other non-champagne sparkling wines will have a similar effect. Look for sparkling whites made with Chardonnay grapes or dry sparkling rosés — these crisper wines pair well with robust smoked salmon.
Chablis. Chablis is known for its acidity and minerality, offering a light, zesty flavor that balances the fat of smoked salmon well. Chablis is a great option if you're eating smoked salmon with zingy accompaniments like lemon, yogurt, or sour cream.
Sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon blanc is another white wine known to be high in acidity and minerality, with other flavor characteristics including grapefruit, grass, and even asparagus. To make sure you don't stray too far in the asparagus direction, which might clash with the smoked salmon, look for Sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley, which are drier and more minerally.
Riesling or Gewurztraminer. In their home region of Alsace, medium-dry Rieslings and Gewurztraminers are classic wines to pair with smoked salmon. Both have high acid and light, fruity flavors that pair well with smoked salmon and light accompaniments like chèvre. To avoid too much sweetness, make sure to get one that's more an expression of citrus than stone fruit or flowers.
Chardonnay. As you may have noticed, Chardonnay is a key grape in many wines that pair well with smoked salmon. Since Chardonnay grapes are fairly neutral, Chardonnay wine comes in a wide range of expressions depending on its terroir. Look for a younger, unoaked Chardonnay grown in a cooler region, which means it will be drier, higher in acid, and have a lighter body. These Chardonnays will still have a bit of creaminess and pair well with richer smoked salmon dishes like pasta with a butter or cream sauce. Avoid Chardonnays that are heavy-bodied, have notes of vanilla, or are described as "oaky," as these strong flavors do not make for successful smoked salmon pairings.
Pinot noir. Many people prefer to pair smoked salmon with red wine such as Pinot noir. A light- to medium-bodied red that's low in tannins, Pinot noir is high in acid and typically has subtle notes of cherries or red berries, and sometimes mushroom or forest floor. An earthier Pinot Noir, such as those from the Pacific Northwest, will complement the salmon's smoky flavor.
Smoked salmon wine pairing options are not limited, and anyone can find one they like. If you're still unsure or want to get a specific expression of a varietal, consult with a wine expert at JJ Buckley. JJ Buckley Fine Wines carry wine for every occasion and our wine consultants offer recommendations for every pairing and palate.