Recently I was asked by a friend about pairing wine with some traditional brunch fare. In particular, I was asked: What wine would you pair with gravlax, lox or smoked salmon?
One can’t go far wrong with dry bubbly, but these different types of salmon are very different from each other, with flavors that can vary from delicate and sweet to rich and smoky. The different flavors and textures, the various styles of serving and the accompanying menu options — breads, bagels, toast, cheeses, capers, red onion — and the like, also means that there are a variety of other winning wine combinations to consider.
To review the fish:
Gravlax is salmon that has been cured, but not smoked (the cure typically contains salt, sugar, and dill, and traditionally also aquavit or vodka, and often enough also juniper berries, horseradish, and possibly also some sort of citrus; it is commonly pressed a little while it’s curing).
Lox, traditionally, refers to a salt-cured belly of salmon, which is also not smoked, though most folks think it means smoked salmon.
Smoked salmon is a salt-cured salmon (though it can come from any part of the fish, not just the belly) that has also been smoked — either cold-smoked, which leaves it with a raw texture similar to lox or gravlax, or hot-smoked, which results in a firm, flaky texture.
When most folks refer to smoked salmon they mean cold-smoked; popular types of cold-smoked salmon include Nova (from Nova Scotia; this tends to be a very light smoke, and is fatty, and mild in flavor), Norwegian (tends to be a subtle smoke, not too oily with a mild flavor), Irish (tends to be similar to Nova in texture, fattier than the Norwegian and with a more mild smoke), and Scottish (strong smoke, generally fatty and silky in texture). Most folks looking for smoked salmon are probably looking for Nova or Irish.
Consider young, crisp, dry white wines that are unoaked or that have very little oak influence. The oak tends to overpower the more delicate and subtle qualities in the salmon. Some great options are Sancerre, Chablis, dry Riesling, dry sauvignon blanc provided it isn’t too herbaceous, unoaked chardonnay, and many dry rosés — especially from Provence.
As for reds, look for something that is dry, lean and that offers a nice amount of minerality, like some styles of pinot noir. Avoid most Israeli pinot noirs, as most when paired with smoked or cured salmon are likely to seem comparatively sweet and syrupy, appearing almost jammy in character.
Options outside of wine are cold vodka, gin or aquavit or a cold northern European lager or pilsner. Or perhaps a briny and not too smoky Scotch whisky. While Laphroaig or Lagavulin would likely smother a cured or cold-smoked salmon, Caol Isla, Oban, Old Pulteney or even Talisker would work a real treat.
While writing this, I enjoyed a poppy-seed bagel with lox, capers, red onion and plain cream cheese, paired with a nice glass of the following: Champagne Laurent-Perrier, Brut, Kosher Edition ($80): This first-rate, light-to-medium-bodied blend of 45 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir, and 15 percent pinot meunier (different from Laurent-Perrier’s usual house blend of 50-35-15) is refined and balanced, yet fun and easy, with fine, concentrated, endless bubbles and notes of citrus peel, minerals and nuts, all with a lovely dollop of fresh berries in the lengthy finish. This is superb champagne. L’chaim!
Have wine or spirits questions for Joshua E. London? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.