Corks+Forks: Copper River Salmon and Pinot Noir

Don’t mess with Alaska’s Copper River Salmon and Oregon Pinot Noir.

I was making friends while flying solo at a bar top a few weeks back with a half dozen dames in town from Anchorage, Alaska. After explaining what I do (the answer was “a lot of things with booze in the Northwest?”), the ladies inquired as to why their fare state is not clumped into the general “Pacific Northwest” group. Their rationale came down to a few questionable points, but most importantly, they stood on solid ground with one matter — the greatest gift Alaska gives the Pacific Northwest is Copper River salmon and we bes’ be recognizin’.

Copper River salmon span nearly 300 miles annually to make it to their spawning grounds in the Prince William Sound of Cordova, Alaska. Through the whipping and wildly strong rapids of the river, these fish are bona fide triathletes, having the strength and wits to push through such physical challenges. With a laundry list of natural oils, Omega-3 fatty acids and body fat, Copper River Salmon are one of the most toothsome fish species alive.

The river runs with three main wild salmon species: Coho, King and Sockeye. King, which earned its name for its size as the largest of the five Alaska salmon species, is crowned for its rich and robust flavor, high oil content and firm texture. Coho comes a short second in Alaskan abundance and size to the King, where the Sockeye is nearly half the size of the other two.

There’s even a little bit of rivalry between Anchorage and Seattle on who will be the first each year to receive their Copper River salmon. According to the Associated Press, The Bridge Seafood Restaurant in Anchorage ran a satirical commercial of the Seattle-based Alaska Airlines plug for the salmon they deliver each year, poking fun at the famous fish market in Pike Place. The first-of-the-season title might be debatable but one thing is certain – Copper River fishing season kicked off on Thursday, May 17th and found its way to the Northwest one day later.

Seattle seafoodies squirm until they get their Copper River allocations. Ivar’s, one of Seattle’s oldest seafood dynasties, has been in full CRS flux for the past few weeks, offering several different cuts of the fish from lox to alder-grilled.

Ivar’s Salmon House executive chef Jason Bray pays tribute to the fish with simple preparations that let the natural flavor shine. A Northwest native, Bray’s love of cooking and pairing with wine proves helpful for the restaurant’s seafood-savvy wine list.

The Dish: Grilled Salmon Combo (Market Price) — Doubled up with both King and Sockeye salmon, the simple dish showcases creamy, mashed red potatoes and buttery asparagus spears. The focus is the fish and it is selfish for the spotlight, you can’t take your eyes of the pretty in pink colors and lightly-marked prints from the grill.

The Variety: Pinot Noir — The Burgundian grape variety is so noble in its region that there is no other challenge, its nickname plainly proves it – “Red Burgundy.” Fickle, fragile and delicate, Pinot Noir is a dainty damsel and can’t be toyed with or she will shut down completely. Grown in cooler climate regions, Pinot Noir requests a gentle soaking of sunlight but chillier nights in order to achieve its much sought-after acidity.

Why It Works: A classic pairing for a reason – it just works. It matches the richness and sweetness of the fish, as well as the impactful acid on both accounts.

The Recommended Match: Eola Hills 2010 Oregon Pinot Noir ($16) — Loaded with bright red fruits of strawberry, Bing cherry, cranberry and red currant, the fruit is melded softly into the supple tannins and vibrant acid, easing into an earthy light-bodied yet effective finish.

Ivar’s Salmon House | 401 NE Northlake Way, Seattle | (206) 632-0767