Wine pairings: Salmon Tartare and Gewurztraminer Grand Cru

If you’ve been counting along, and I know you haven’t, you’ll know that this is a very special post for me. As a matter of fact, this is my post number 100 on johanjohansen.dk and if that doesn’t call for celebration, I don’t know what does! And how does one adequately celebrate 100 lengthy rants about top ingredients, great food and fine wines? Well, by having some good, honest great food made with top ingredients and chased by fine wine, of course.

There are many meals and many accompanying wines I could have chosen to celebrate, but as it turns out, the choice was pretty much made for me in a surprising twist of events:

The first twist occurred when I received a beautiful and fresh filet of salmon from my “friends” over at skagenfood.dk whom I have now trusted with sourcing many of my everyday cooking ingredients. They deliver fresh vegetables and fruit weekly, fresh, organic meats monthly and a variety of other things. All directly to my doorstep  at reasonable prices so I practically don’t even have to worry about grocery shopping anymore – and they don’t pay me to say that, I should probably add.

Beautiful salmon filetA whole side of salmon? Just for me? Go on then!

In the process of trimming said salmon and figuring out just what to do with it, I received a dinner invitation from my friend Emelie who wanted to spoil me a little. This happens from time to time and I very seldomly complain. I do, however, usually find a way to show my gratitude – often by fixing up a little starter for the two of us. With plenty of super fresh salmon on hand and a fellow adventurous eater as a date for the evening, I saw no reason not to make my starter fish-based. Heck, I saw no reason not to make it a raw food fish-based starter: my 100th meal on the blog would be a seductively decadent salmon tartare!

 

Salmon Tartare: Raw Food Decadence

Granted, to some, uncooked protein may not seem like much of a cause for celebration, let alone something you’d serve for a lovely young lady. The thing is, though, fresh, quality foods need very little in terms of complimentary ingredients in order to shine, and sometimes even the relatively damaging process of applying fierce heat for any amount of time seems a bit of a shame. That goes for many fruits and vegetables, it goes for herbs, and sometimes, in really special cases, it goes for absolute top quality beef (as in the case of steak tartare)  and super fresh fish. So, if we can just all for a moment get over the fact that we’re eating raw protein and play along, that’d be swell. Thank you! 🙂

Tuna Tartare River CafeRaw fish is unappetizing? This is tuna tartare from The River Café. Review Here!

FOOD SAFETY WARNING: Obviously consuming raw protein comes with some sort of risk attached. Raw fish, in extreme cases, might harbor parasites that might be extremely hazardous to your health. Raw preparations should only be attempted using the freshest and best quality fish available. I personally would never prepare salmon tartare or sushi from fish unless the purveyor of said fish was able to explain to me with confidence the origin of said fish, and I’d also make sure it was fresh and had no weird smells or funkiness to it. In other words: If something smells fishy, don’t do it! Fresh fish don’t smell fishy! Most national health agencies will recommend that fish served raw be frozen for a period of 24 hours before consumption. Unless you’re absolutely sure and blindly trust the origin of your fish, I’d adhere to that rule any day!

There’s something primal, satisfying and, well, downright sexy about consuming raw protein in its purest and most unadulterated form without a lot of fuss and preparation: the silky texture and mouthfeel, the clean-cut, pure taste, the lack of distraction from complimentary or contrasting flavors. It’s an immersive and deeply satisfying experience which probably goes to explain why sushi has become such a big thing.

Sourcing great salmon: To procure superior quality salmon for raw consumption, you’ll probably have to do something that many of us do way too seldomly: go talk to your friendly neighborhood fish monger. Chances are he’s had similar requests before and will be able to hook you up with sushi-grade salmon along with information on origin and any other advice you may need. The stuff you get on the cheap at the local supermarket, whether chilled or frozen simply won’t do. Like, seriously. Don’t do it! If you don’t have a local fish monger, do what I did, try searching online – you’ll probably find a company willing to ship you quality fresh caught or flash frozen fish. Just don’t tell your local fish monger I said that.

Obviously, if you’re going to serve it raw, your salmon needs to be absolutely fresh and of superior quality. You’ll want to get the best, freshest salmon that money can buy and you’ll want to treat it gently and with respect. If you do, I guarantee you’ll be rewarded with a serving of salmon unlike any you’ve ever had before – without even putting in a lot of effort or expensive specialty ingredients, that is! Superb quality salmon, you see, needs very little in terms of preparation or complimentary ingredients. It would only overshadow the freshness and flavor or the beautiful fish that we paid good money for.

Simple salmon tartareGorgeously simple salmon tartare

Provided you have good fish from a trusted source, you need very little else to whip up a quick, satisfying and decadent salmon tartare. You don’t even need a lot of time! In all honesty, I spent more time walking to my friend’s Emelie’s place than I did preparing this beautiful little starter. And the process (the starter, not the walk!) went a little something like this…

 

Simple Salmon Tartare
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
This salmon tartare is purposely kept simple to highlight the flavors of the beautiful, fresh salmon. Serve this as an appetizer on toasted crusty bread with a slice of avocado or maybe on blinis with a dollop of creme fraiche.
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Serves: 2
Ingredients
  • 100 grams of superb quality very fresh salmon filet
  • a pinch of gourmet salt such as Maldon Sea Salt for Himalayan Rock Salt
  • a few grinds of good quality black pepper
  • juice of half a lime
  • 4-5 drops of Sriracha hot sauce
Instructions
  1. Carefully remove the skin of the salmon using a sharp knife.
  2. Finely dice the salmon with your knife, try to stick with a uniform size that you're comfortable with - you don't want to completely whack it to pieces.
  3. Place the finely diced salmon in a bowl and sprinkle over a bit of salt along with a few grinds of black pepper, then carefully add 4-5 drops of Sriracha hot sauce.
  4. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over the salmon, then mix all the ingredients well and thoroughly.
  5. Leave to sit a few minutes before serving, but don't wait too long or the lime juice might discolor the fish.
Notes
Do use the best possible ingredients for this dish, right down to the salt and pepper. There are astounding differences in something as simple as salt and quality does matter here! No worries, though, a little quality salt goes a long way!

As far as pepper goes, it's of the utmost importance that you use freshly ground here - none of that horrible pre-ground stuff, please!

In terms of hot sauce, I'd really recommend you go with Sriracha or other Asian type hot sauce. Steer clear of Tabasco or other vinegar-driven sauces. There are times when the vinegary bite of these sauces are a good accent. This is not one of those times!

Tasting salmon tartare: not at all fishy!

If you’ve never had raw fish, this is one of those experiences that are going to be a bit difficult to explain. You might fear that raw salmon would taste, well, fishier… It doesn’t. Rather it tastes fresher, purer, more meaty and less, well, processed than its cooked counterpart. True, unadulterated, pure, intense, fresh, wild salmon, oil and sea are the predominant flavors. The subtle flavorings added; the salt, the pepper, lime juice and the mere hint of chili doesn’t as much serve to add flavor as it serves to add accent and depth. The salt, obviously, acts as a natural flavor enhancer while the pepper and the mere hint of chili tickle the taste buds and kickstart the flavor receptors, helping them make the most of the star player: the flavorful fresh salmon. The lime juice completes the picture by adding a subtle contrast that you wouldn’t really notice unless it wasn’t there.

And that’s all fine and dandy, but it’s hardly a 100th post celebration without wine. So what, then, does one drink with salmon tartare? Especially if one celebrates a little anniversary? Well, good question, friends! Let’s think!

 

Wine pairing for dummies

One question I’ve gotten a lot over the years is the following: How do I pick a wine to match the food I’m eating? And, well, that’s a very good question… Generally speaking there are two ways one can go when pairing wine with food: contrasting pairings or complimentary pairings.

A Contrasting pairing is when we pick a wine that flavor and character-wise offer contrasting elements to what we’re eating. A classic example here would be sweet, highly acidic wines served with Foie Gras to cut through the fatty richness of the liver. A complimentary pairing, on the other hand, would be when we chose a wine with the same characteristics as the food we’re eating in an effort to elevate and emphasize common flavors. A textbook example here would be a low tannic, fruity Australian Shiraz served with venison or pork in a berry reduction sauce.

Both ways obviously work (along with a third and very popular option that I have come to call “go with whatever the hell you feel like drinking!”) and neither is necessarily better than the other. For my money, though, I usually tend to go with option number one: contrasting pairings. This goes especially for fatty fish where I usually reach for something clean and acidic like a German Riesling or a Chardonnay from Burgundy, Chablis or Champagne.

This time, though, I did things a little differently and reached for a complimentary pairing just for the fun of it and in doing so, probably went a little off the beaten track. I went and got hold of a nice, cool and surprisingly sweet Gewurztraminer of considerable age and fine heritage.

 

Salmon and… Gewurztraminer?

Granted, Gewurztraminer may seem an odd choice for a salmon pairing. Actually, Gewurztraminer is a pretty odd, little thing on its own. With it’s inherent sweetness, oily mouthfeel, pronounced tropical fruit notes and distinct spiciness, Gewurztraminer is in a league of its own and quite unlike any other grape I can think of. It’s probably fair to say, even, that Gewurztraminer with it’s decidedly bold and contrasting impressions is probably the most confused grape out there. And, up until a few years ago, it was also a grape that I simply did not understand, let alone cared for. You see, there’s a lot of really bad, horribly sweet, incredibly unbalanced Gewurztraminer in this world.

Domaine Saint-Remy 2009 Gewurztraminer Grand CruThis + salmon = ?

Time, experience and playful nudging has, however, shown me that in the right hands Gewurztraminer can be a balanced, complex and enjoyable experience.

Never bone dry, Gewurztraminer comes in a wide range of sweetnesses from semi-sweet food wines to late harvest dessert wines of an almost syrupy character and mouthfeel. Their sweetness and unique character make the semi-sweet an obvious pairing for spicy Asian cuisine while the sweet versions are usually reserved for equally sweet desserts. In unskilled winemaker hands, the sweetness of the wine will usually be the most dominant factor, leaving you with a one-sided unbalanced and seemingly overly sweet wine experience. However, in the right hands, the inherent sweetness is usually accompanied by bold, fruity, spicy flavors and most importantly a refreshing bite of acidity that will leave the wine feeling fresher and less cloyingly sweet.

And that’s when Gewurz (as she is affectionately known) becomes interesting and surprisingly versatile. While appearing fresh and acidic, the sugar content in quality Gewurz is still undeniable; there’ll be a decidedly sweet aftertaste trailing the spice and acid and, more noticeably, the mouthfeel will be thick, mouth-coating, almost oily owing in large parts to residual sugar. It was the silky, oily mouthfeel along with the richness that made me think that a Gewurz might be a good pairing for equally soft, silky mouthfeel and slightly sweet taste of the salmon tartare. The spice, and acidity that a really well-made Gewurz brought to the table, I figured, would keep things from getting too oily and sweet. I was stretching it, admittedly, but it was worth a shot.

So, where does one find good Gewurz from skilled hands? Well, a good place to start the search would be a lovely, little place known as Alsace.

 

Alsace: Home of the great whites!

I know of few wine-producing areas in the world that do not produce white wine of one form or another. But few places are universally known for producing truly great whites: The slopes of Burgundy are known for their immaculately pretty and outrageously expensive Chardonnays, the rocky cliffs of the Mosel valley in Germany for their cool-cut, ragingly acidic and intense Rieslings… And then there’s Alsace, the charming country side that was once French, then German, then French, German and now French again (or something along those lines)… Known for its, well, six different varietals of white grapes, it’s myriad of growers producing very different wines from the same grapes hailing from a plethora of named vineyards and the world’s greatest concentration of so-called Grand Crus.

With so many winemakers battling for position, it should come as no surprise that not all Alsatian wines are created equal. And, let’s be honest, some of them simply are not worth drinking. Others are more than ok but not breathtaking in any way. But then, and herein lies the magic of Alsace, there are also the truly memorable ones, like the 2009 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru from Domaine Saint-Remy.

Value for money? There’s a strong and lengthy tradition for white wine making in Alsace. Somehow, though, Alsace has not been subject to quite the same level of attention as more “prominent” white wine areas such as Mosel or Bourgogne. And that’s good news for wine lovers such as you and I because it means that prices in Alsace have not skyrocketed in quite the same way as the whites of Mosel and Burgundy. Often truly memorable Alsatian wines can be found at the same price that you would pay for an entry level Mosel or (particularly) Burgundian white. I.e. $40 or so.

 

Domaine Saint-Remy 2009 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Hengst

Domaine Saint-Remy is a family-run winery located in the supposedly quaint town of Wettolsheim. The history of the domaine dates back to 1725 which is a lengthy run for any type of business, let alone a family one at that. Current owners and winemakers Philippe and Connie Erhart produce a pretty diverse array of wines in all styles (dry, semi-sweet, late harvest, sparkling, even eau de vie) from all major grapes including but not limited to Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir – Alsace’s only red grape – and even the much overlooked and relatively unknown Pinot Auxerrois, And they do so through processes that are both certified organic and biodynamic.

Biodynamic agriculture, in thirty words or less, is a stricter form of organic production drawing on spiritual and mystical elements including an astronomical sowing and growing calendar. It is, needless to say, an agricultural form subject to much debate and heated criticism, attacked by critics as being  a form of pseudoscience and having no scientifically proven benefits. The fact remains, though, that more and more winemakers, many of them extremely notable (Zind-Humbrecht from Alsace and legendary Burgundian producer Domaine Leflaive to name but a few) have turned to biodynamic production – with some pretty astounding results, mind you. I can’t say I’m really sold on the spiritual aspects being to blame for the superior products, but the fact remains that biodynamic winemakers are, by and large, producing excellent results all throughout France.

And speaking of results, let’s have a look at the 2009 Grand Cru Hengst from Domaine Saint-Remy…

More Grand Crus than anywhere else: Alsace, like many other wine regions are split in a myriad of named locations: villages, fields, vineyards. Some of these are known simply by their name (e.g. Rosenberg). Others by a quality designation Grand Cru followed by their name (e.g. Grand Cru Hengst). The designation Grand Cru is meant to label selected geographic locations that have potential for producing wines of spectacular quality. The Cru system is used many places in France but where some places like Burgundy and Bordeaux have several degrees of Cru designations based upon hundreds of years of wine growing, Alsace have two: wines are either “plain” Alsace wines or they’re Alsace Grand Cru wines.

This simple split has caused some controversy around the Alsace labelling system, probably fuelled by the fact that the Grand Cru designation was only introduced in 1975 and heavily expanded in 1985, 1992 and 200 to a point where Alsace now have more Grand Crus than anywhere else in France. Does that make Alsace Grand Cru a worthless designation? Most certainly not! Alsace Grand Cru vineyards do yield some of the most fantastic white wines in the world, but they also yield some of the most disappointing. Simply because of the large areas and numbers of producers at play. When purchasing Alsace Grand Cru, emphasis should be on the name of the producer, not the Grand Cru designation and caution should be used. Ask an expert or consult an aggregated wine score site such as the amazing resource that is cellartracker.com

At almost six years of age, this particular Gewurztraminer has developed an absolutely gorgeous golden color. When swirled in the glass, it flows slowly and steadily, clinging to the sides of the glass – a sure sign of a fair amount of residual sugar. (around 50 grams pr liter if I’m not very much mistaken)

2009 Gewurztraminer Grand CruThere’s something about the color of Grand Cru Gewurztraminer with a bit of age to it…

The Domaine Saint-Remy Gewurztraminer right off the bat does not seem as pungently spicy and funky as some Gewurztraminers can be. On the contrary, it’s quite subtly seductive with floral hints and nice herbaceous notes. Depending on how you chose to look at it, that may be considered either a pro or a con, but as far as I can tell, in terms of food pairings, the lack of “oomph” certainly makes it more versatile.

On the nose, the 2009 Hengst is an intense mix of exotic fruit and floral accents. It seems quite perfumed on the edge of overpowering, but only barely on the edge. The taste as could be expected is rich, tropical,  fruity, juicy with a velvety, mouth-coating mouthfeel to match, yet sports a nice acidity and surprisingly youthful freshness with an underlying minerality that cuts through the sweetness and fruit, delivering a perfectly balanced wine that’s neither too sweet nor too acidic.

Gewurztraminer may be an acquired taste, but for those who have bothered to venture beyond the supermarket versions and have started seriously consuming better Gewurztraminers, this could be quite a pleaser. Heck, even those who haven’t should give it a try and see what real Gewurz can be like.

On the grand 100 point scale of things, I give the Domaine Saint-Remy 2009 Gewurztraminer a nice, even 90 / 100 points with possible room to improve over the next couple of years.

Want to taste along? Looking for quality Gewurztraminer from a small, reliable producer? If you’re located in the fair country of Denmark, you can do what I did which is to buy it from Vestergaard Wines. If not, try reaching out to Philippe and Connie Erhart from Domaine Saint-Remy. They’re lovely people (I’ve actually met them!) and will probably be able to tell you where to go.

 

Salmon and Gewurztraminer? Will It Blend?

That is the question, is it not? In all honesty, when I attended a tasting this past summer which featured this particular wine, I heard some folks mumble about the sweetness it brought to the table and it possibly being too much. Truth be told, I may have joined in a little back then. But while the sweetness of the wine is pronounced, it’s by no means as pronounced as many other Gewurztraminers, not by a long shot, and the freshness does help keep the sweetness in check.

When paired with a rich, fatty, slightly sweet-tasting fish such as salmon, the sweetness seemed to dissipate, though, and was noticeable mainly as a thick, tongue-coating mouthfeel. On different levels, though, the other elements of the wine and the raw fish dish worked together in seemingly perfect harmony that helped elevate both the quality of the fish and the quality of the wine.

The mouthfeel of the raw fish and that of the wine combined into an altogether velvety and not at all off-putting experience while the floral and exotic fruit flavor notes of the wine added a little extra kick to the simply yet slightly exotically dressed salmon. It was the sort of harmony that, on its own, may have been considered overpowering. Luckily, though, this is exactly where the acidic backbone and surprising freshness of the wine took over and created that fair bit of contrast that helped showcase the harmonious pairing.

Huh… Salmon and Gewurztraminer? Who’d have thunk? Here’s to another hundred geeky posts!

1999 Champagne Delamotte Blanc de BlancsTo many more…

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