Experiments with Salmon and Merlot (#MerlotMe, #WinePW)

I’ve long believed that Merlot is one of those red grapes that has the potential to work well with seafood meatier seafood like salmon, trout, and arctic char, as well as richer preparations for shellfish. Not every red grape can do it, but there’s a lot about Merlot that recommends it as a candidate. Today we’ll put the theory to the test by taking a look at three bottles with three different salmon dishes to see what works and what doesn’t.

Red wine and seafood?

So, why does the old rule of thumb tell us to pair red wines with meat and white wines with seafood? The answer is tannins. Tannins are phenolic compounds that are found in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes. Because the juice used to make red wines have more contact with these parts of the grapes to take on more color and structure, they have a more tannic profile when compared to white wines that are generally pressed right off the skins. In fact, tannins are a key part of what we call structure. They create an astringent or bitter effect on our palates. They can feel a little bit like sandpaper on our tongue, or I’ve heard some people describe it as little socks on their teeth. 

Meat proteins have a smoothing effect on how tannins hit our palates that makes the whole combination feel more silky and delicious. By contrast, tannins tend to compete with the oils in fish, and the combo can make the whole sensation more bitter and sour. That’s why we have the rule of thumb; however, if you know that tannins are the main issue, you can try to work around it in some cases – delicate seafood preparations will be a real challenge. This is very useful to know if you’re a red wine drinker who loves seafood. (My mom falls into this camp, so I often think of her in these cases.) 


The other key component to consider is the body of the wine since a big robust wine can just completely overpower the flavors of seafood. 

Why Merlot?

Some red grapes are more tannic than others. For example, Pinot Noir and Gamay tend to be lighter in tannins and also tend to be light to medium-bodied, so they tend to be among the first red grapes people go to when pairing with seafood. Other red grapes can work as well if you're selective – Grenache, Tempranillo, Barbera,  and Cab Franc, can all be good candidates, as is Merlot, as you might've already guessed. Merlot has some things going for it. Merlot’s tannins are usually in the more moderate spectrum, and those tannins are also usually on the smoother side –– so even if the proverbial sandpaper is there, the grit is less rough. Merlot just tends to have an overall plushness that suggests it won’t be as combative in a seafood pairing than reds with more aggressive tannins. 

Of course, not every Merlot is the same. The expression of an individual bottle will depend on where it’s grown, the blend, and how it’s handled. For example, wood also contains tannins, so wines that spend a lot of time in new oak will tend to be higher in tannins.

By the same token, not every seafood dish is a good candidate. Salmon has a meatiness that makes it a good crossover fish, so we’re going to look at three different salmon dinners to see what worked and what didn’t. I’m sharing the pairings here in order of how well they worked, starting with the most successful match-up. We’ve explored all three of these wines in previous vintages, so there are also additional pairings to share for them. 

Note: The wines in today's post were provided as media samples. No other compensation was received and all opinions are my own.

J. Lohr  Merlot Paso Robles 2019 and Salmon with Mushrooms and Grilled Polenta

Price: $15 Blend: 85% Merlot, 14% Malbec, 1% Cabernet Sauvignon    ABV: 13.9%

Find additional details here. 

J. Lohr has been a family-owned winery since 1974. Jerry Lohr began the company, first planting vines in Arroyo Seco in Monterey, then later expanding to Paso Robles. His children – Steve, Cynthia, and Lawrence – now work with him and are partners in the company. J. Lohr is a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard & Winery and received the Green Medal Leader Award from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance in 2020. (More info on their sustainability practices here.)

Tasting Notes: Raspberry, blackberry, plums, and violets greet you on the nose and continued on the palate, where they were joined by a touch of chocolate. The wine was smooth, fruit-forward, and rode the line between juicy and a richer, saucy texture. Tannins were very supple and smooth. 

How it worked: This was our favorite experiment. The wine worked very well with seared salmon topped with mushrooms sauteed with herb, and a bit of wine, all topping crispy polenta rounds. The wine’s moderate, smooth tannins were pretty much exactly what I was looking for in a red wine to pair with salmon. The wine was made using moderate amounts of oak (it spent 12 months in barrel, of which 17% was new), and the wine’s smooth, easy-going profile and medium/medium+ body all helped ensure that it did not overwhelm the salmon. Mushrooms tend to be friends with most red wines (a fair number of whites as well) thanks to their meaty texture and earthy, umami flavors, so bringing them into the mix really helped tie the flavors of the food and wine together, while the grilled polenta also added texture to the food that further helped the dish as a whole stand up to the wine. 

Additional Pairings: The last time we tried this wine, we paired it with sausage pizza and it also worked very well. I can also see this being a great burger wine. The winery also recommends this with grilled sausage and veggie shish kabobs or creamy spinach and tomato tortellini. This is a good all-purpose red at a very reasonable price.

L'Ecole NO. 41 Merlot Columbia Valley  2018 with Salmon with Black Beans and Grilled Peppers and Onions

Price: $25    Blend: 80%, 14% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot    ABV: 14.5%

Find additional details here. 

L’Ecole No. 41 is a third-generation family-owned winery and the third oldest winery in Walla Walla Valley. The winery gets its name from the historic Frenchtown School building in which the winery is located. Marty Clubb is L’Ecole N° 41’s Managing Winemaker and co-owns the winery with his wife Megan. Megan’s parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, founded the winery in 1983. L’Ecole has been at the forefront of leading the way on sustainability in Washington. They are certified by VINEA as well as Salmon Safe. Their website goes into great detail on their sustainability and farming practices, which is always great to see.

Tasting Notes: Chocolate-dipped cherries and raspberries and light floral notes hit on the nose. On the palate, the fruit notes were bright, with red plums joining the berries and cherries, along with hints of espresso and smoke. The wine had a silky mouthfeel with fine tannins that gripped lightly on the finish.  

How it worked: This was a good pairing with the salmon with black beans, grilled onions and peppers. I had the benefit of trying this wine in advance, alongside L’Ecole’s Walla Walla Merlot, which is much bigger and more structured, so I knew this would be a good candidate. It’s an elegant wine and while it does have some tannins, they aren’t aggressive. Similarly, while this wine does see more oak (18 months in small oak barrels, 30% of which is new), it’s well integrated. The wine didn’t overpower the salmon, and I have no doubt that it would have worked quite well with the mushroom and polenta combo above as well. 

While the black beans and veggies didn’t have quite the same level of umami and meatiness, the black beans brought earthiness and some rich texture that worked well with the wine. I also seasoned the salmon lightly with cumin, paprika, and pepper which also tied in nicely with the wine.

Additional Pairings: I shared the 2014 vintage of this wine during my first year participating in #MerlotMe month in this post, during which we compared Merlots from Washington, California, and Bordeaux, and paired them all with a feast that included duck rillettes, a porchetta roast with green beans with miso butter, and wild mushroom and butter bean pasta. Last year, I also paired the 2017 vintage with Hominy and Beef Chili. Over time, the wine has proved to be a versatile player across the board. 

Peju Merlot Napa Valley 2018 with Salmon in a Soy-Honey Glaze with Mushrooms and Sweet Potatoes

Price: $55    Blend:  80% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot    ABV: 14.5%

Find additional details here. 

Tony Peju and his wife Herta purchased their 30-acre property in Rutherford in 1983. Today, they’re joined in the business by their daughters Lisa and Ariana. Today, Peju owns five properties totaling 558 acres, 232 of which are currently planted. The original property in  Rutherford was certified organic in 2007 by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The rest of their vineyards farmed sustainably (certified by Napa Green) with the goal of becoming organically certified within a few years. All of the properties were certified Fish Friendly Farming in 2019.

Tasting Notes: Aromas of cherries, red licorice, chocolate, along with a few red flower petals start on the nose. On the palate, the wine was plush, showing predominantly red fruit notes with a few blackberries and blueberries mixed in. Notes of tobacco, dark chocolate, pencil, and spice box joined in as well. This was a structured merlot with grippy tannins – a Cab lover’s Merlot.

How it worked: This was the most robust and structured of the Merlots here, and I knew this wine was going to be a bit of stretch for salmon, in this case, served with mushrooms and sweet potatoes in a soy-honey glaze. (I based mine on this recipe from Serious Eats, but roasted the mushrooms and sweet potatoes instead of using bok choy.) Nonetheless, I was up for experimenting and wanted to challenge the common wisdom for myself. While it wasn’t a great pairing, it also wasn’t too bad -– it was just ok. The flavors of the food worked generally well with the wine, although I do recommend going heavier on the soy and lighter on the honey, as sweetness can challenge dry wines, whereas soy brings umami notes that tie together nicely.  

It came down to the tannins. As might be expected, they were a bit grippy for the salmon, so it overpowered it just a bit. This wine saw the most oak (17 months in French and American oak, 40% of which was new) and was generally made to be more robust in style. The back label does describe it as a “richer, bolder style of Merlot” which should be a good warning if you’re looking for a bottle to pair with salmon. That said, we opened this on what was kind of a rough day and I thought we could use a treat, and while the pairing was just ok, the wine was thoroughly enjoyed.

Additional Pairings: The last time we tried this wine (2013 vintage) it was paired with a dinner of brisket and fall vegetables and roasted potatoes in this post, which certainly better matched the wine’s structure.

5 Takeaways for Pairing Seafood and Merlot 

(and red wines in general)

  • Look for indicators on the bottle’s label that would suggest it’s higher in tannins. If you see words like “robust” or “highly structured,” the wine might not a great candidate for seafood. 
  • Entry-level Merlots are often better bets for pairing with seafood. The wines made for this tier tend to be made to have a more fruity, less structured profile with less time spent in wood, making them better candidates. They'll also tend to be a little lighter in body, which also helps in matching the weight of the dish.
  • Similarly, look for examples that spent little to no time in new oak as wood can add more tannins to the wine.
  • Earthy and savory flavors like mushrooms and soy sauce will create additional ties between the wine and the food, making for a better match. 
  • Including sides with additional depth and texture like beans and grains will help the overall texture of the dish match the richer body of red wines. 


This is my 5th year participating in #MerlotMe Month, so there is quite a bit of Merlot-related content to explore on this blog, with more coming soon:


October is  #MerlotMe month and once again the Wine Pairing Weekend blogging group (#WinePW) is participating and sharing tons of Merlot pairings. Jeff from Food, Wine, Click! is hosting, and you can find his invitation post here. Check out their posts here: 



  1. Love reading about these experiments. I'm always hesitant to pair salmon with red wine (although I also tend to make salmon with flavors that go better with white) but now I feel more adventurous and may try, and will definitely follow your 5 tips!

  2. Thanks for this. I do tend to pair seafood with reds and eschew the usual white prescription. Now I know why some work and some don't.

  3. What brilliant tips for pairing red wine with seafood! I really appreciate that you tried several dishes and pairings to show the difference.

    I also found the details on tannins very clarifying!

  4. I love your experiments Nicole. Great tips for pairing seafood and Merlot. We frequently pair Pinot Noir with salmon and tuna. Will have to try some of the other red grapes you recommended, and I agree Merlot and fit the bill, particularly as you point out if there are mushrooms or the like added to the mix. Brava!

    1. Thanks so much Martin! I hope you have good luck with other red wine and seafood pairings!

  5. Great pairing tips-- totally agree! I've long enjoyed salmon with Pinot Noir as well as WA merlot.

  6. I love breaking the old rules! Merlot has so much to offer it shouldn't be pigeon holed!


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