Northwest chefs’ tips for pairing wines with spring chinook salmon

Salmon has been a centerpiece of Pacific Northwest culture and cuisine for millennia, and the annual run of spring chinook salmon serves up a delight for wine-loving chefs, home grillers and dinner guests.

Steering the ship is Anthony’s Restaurants, which Seattle’s Budd Gould started in 1969 and has grown to 22 restaurants in Washington and Oregon.

Chinook — aka king salmon — is a staple year-round at Anthony’s, but the restaurant group alters its focus based on the season. Lately, it was the early-season up-river Columbia River spring chinook. In another month, the Copper River kings begin running.

“We treat all king salmon equal,” said Anthony’s regional chef Tony Ring, “but we don’t change the recipes based on the oil content.”

Anthony’s team does not approach sockeye, also known as silver salmon, the same way.

“With sockeye, we don’t want to char-grill it,” Ring said. “It doesn’t have the same oil content of the kings.”

When it comes to pairing Northwest wines with chinook, preparation determines the direction for Ring’s chefs, who receive only wild salmon from their company’s buyers.

“We enjoy a char-grilled (king) salmon with sun-dried tomato basil butter, and we like that with a Chinook Merlot,” he said, a not-so-ironic reference to Kay Simon’s historic Chinook Wines in Prosser.

“And because of the char from the grill and the sweetness of the tomato and the richness of the butter, I also personally like a syrah with it.”

Wine country chef Andrae Bopp, who operates a restaurant in Walla Walla and caters throughout the state, loves the versatility of salmon.

“You can go the semillon/sauvignon blanc route if it is poached — or even pinot gris,” Bopp said. “When grilling, it depends upon the sauce and sides, so it could be anything from a rose to a light pinot noir to chardonnay. Put a little Southeast Asian spice in it and you could go riesling.”

Ring, an employee of Anthony’s for 32 years, offers some tips to home chefs who worry about pairing wine with salmon.

“Don’t be afraid of butter, and don’t be afraid of light-bodied reds,” he said. “Incorporating butter into the recipe can take away that metallic flavor. And char-grilling — creating that smokiness — also helps.”

A grill-marked or wood-planked king with an oaky, reserve-style chardonnay can sometimes work, too.

“If we do it in the oven with an alder plank, which we’ll prepare with a beurre blanc and some braised leeks, we’ll suggest serving it with a softer merlot, a full-bodied chardonnay or a white blend with not a lot of acidity,” Ring said. “A sauvignon blanc wouldn’t go too well with it.”

Here are four Washington state wines to serve with spring chinook:

Arbor Crest Wine Cellars 2011 Four Vineyards Merlot, Columbia Valley, $18: Spokane winemaker Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels makes a merlot that sings with aromas of cherry and plum while gathering up milk chocolate and black pepper. Bright flavors form a melody of black cherry, boysenberry and cranberry amid a structure of smooth tannins and pomegranate acidity.

Doyenne 2012 Rose, Yakima Valley, $28: DeLille Cellars’ rose using Rhone varieties grenache, mourvedre and cinsault offers aromas of hibiscus tea, white strawberry, apricot and peach skin backed by flavors of dusty dried currant, white peach, starfruit and plum skin.

Helix by Reininger 2010 Syrah, Columbia Valley, $30: Walla Walla’s Chuck Reininger takes an elegant and low-oak approach with syrah, creating a nose of marionberry, black cherry, violet, cigar box, white pepper, followed by a drink of boysenberry, cherry and red currant with charming tannins and a burst of blueberry.

Naches Heights Vineyard and Winery 2012 Pinot Gris, Naches Heights, $13: Phil Cline shines with whites from this plateau west of Yakima. His estate Pinot Gris brings aromas of Gala apple, pear, pineapple, lime and white pepper, and it’s backed by crisp flavors of carambola, McIntosh apple, Asian pear and lime.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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