Thursday, April 18, 2019

An Elegant Pair: Jean Claude Courtault Chablis and Sichuan Peppercorn Cured Salmon #Winophiles

I’m not an ABC person – ABC stands for “Anything But Chardonnay”. As a predominantly red wine drinker, every now and then if I venture outside my comfort “red” zone, I don’t mind having a glass of Californian oaky Chardonnay. I do like the oaky and buttery taste which some people detest, and especially find that goes well with a bowl of Korean ramen with a slice of cheddar cheese and a runny egg. Liz Barret from "What’s in that Bottle?"invites the French winophiles to explore the many secrets of Chablis. It’s time to splurge on a bottle of very good white, which I typically don’t do, and most importantly, to experience Chardonnay that is far from anything that I have had tasted before.
Terroir – Portlandien and Kimmeridgian Soils
Chablis is a wine region in the northeastern most part of Burgundy. The cool climate of this region produces wine that has lesser sun exposure, sugar, fruit, but more acidity than Chardonnay wine grown in warmer climates. The northern and cool climate stunts the ripening of grapes and may cast nasty spring frosts that could be severe enough to destroy partial or the entire annual harvest. Mother Nature doesn’t always nurture!
Chablis Wine Region - Photo Credit: 

Just like Champagne is referring to the region as well as the wine, Chablis is also the name of the wine that reflects the land in Chablis – the use of Chardonnay grape is understood without being uttered out loud on the wine label. Chablis, which is probably the most distinctive white wine in the world, is a poster-child wine to understand the concept of “terroir”. Chablis region is basically a 150 million year old seafloor that surfaces up as today’s chalky and minerally soil, studded with fossilized seashells and fragments of marine skeletons. The two types of soils are Portlandien and Kimmeridgian. Portlandien soil doesn’t have a dominant portion of fossils, reserving for fruitier and softer Petit Chablis – less prevalent in the region. Kimmeridgian soil, on the contrary, has a larger proportion of limestone and marine fossils. Chablis that is harvested on this soil exhibits the briny, seashell and crushed rock flavors – the precise profile that makes it to the bottles and earns fame for this region. As the export manager, Xavier Ritton, for the La Chablisienne cooperative, one of the best co-ops in France put it in an interview with Wine Enthusiast, “We are not producing Chardonnay, we are using Chardonnay to express the Chablis terroir.”

Land in Chablis that's Full of Fossilized Seashells - Photo Credit: The Source
In terms of aging, Chablis is mostly fermented in steel tanks, unpretentiously revealing the minerality and acidity – totally unlike the oaky and big-flavor Chardonnay that’s quite typically made around the world. Of course, the highest level of Chablis classification, Grand Cru Chablis does use oak to style the wine and to create a different experience of Chablis – more savory, intense fruit, and richer mouth-feel…to name a few. The Appellation d'Origine Protégée system in Chablis divides the region into four classifications: Petit Chablis AOP, Chablis AOP, Chablis Premier Cru AOP and Chablis Grand Cru AOP. Grand Cru is the smallest and most exclusive subregions, following with Premier Cru, Petit Chablis, then Chablis. The price range averages from US$60 for Grand Cru to US$15 for Petit Chablis.
Jean-Claude Courtault Chablis
I picked up a bottle of Jean-Claude Courtault Chablis 2015 from Wine Library, which happens to be Gary Vaynerchuk’s (i.e., Wine Library owner, also a social media personality) favorite white wine. While he likes to drink it at room temperate, I like mine well chilled to achieve the youthful energy, acidity, saline and nervy texture of this Chablis…to the core! Let’s have a sip of my Chablis. 
"Jean Claude Courtault Chablis 2015 smells distinctly briny on the nose, following with scents of green apple and oyster shell. The sips reveal the beautiful minerality, acidity and a hint of nuttiness, presenting a strikingly balanced texture - freshness and richness. The chalkiness and acidity drive a lingering finish that mingles with the food you are enjoying. It has aging potential until 2020."

The winemaking journey of Jean-Claude Courtault is inspirational in the way that persistence and effort make a dream come true for someone who didn’t inherit the land in the French wine world. Jean-Claude and Marie-Chantal Courtault moved to Lignorelles which is northwest of the town of Chablis, from Touraine in the Loire Valley, in 1984, when Jean-Claude was hired to work as a manager at a local Chablis winery. Slowly but surely, he went above and beyond as a winery manager. He started his master plan to implement his vision into the vineyard and to craft honest and pure Chablis that he loved to drink as everyday pleasure. Eventually he purchased 42 acres of the vineyard, which has south/south-west facing slopes and contains mostly Kimmeridgien and a little Portlandian soils, from the previous vineyard owner. The duo soil profiles help Jean Claude Courtault to make both Chablis and Petit Chablis. His approach is to capture the best of Chardonnay in its bare existence with no exotic frills, straightly vinified and aged in temperature-controlled steel tanks.

Sichuan Peppercorn Cured Salmon
When I try to match a dish to the briny, minerality and chalky notes in this Chablis I picked, I’m thinking of salmon. However, the texture I go after needs to be denser than a piece of flaky cooked salmon in order to play out the substantial texture of this wine. My first ever attempt to cure salmon is in my plan!
Sichuan Peppercorn - Photo Credit:
Sichuan peppercorns have aromatic fragrance. It is unique, and almost smells and tastes like a combination of lavender and anise. It causes playfully numbing sensation when it’s combined with chili peppers for cooking Sichuan cuisines. The recipe I devise for the Sichuan peppercorn cured salmon doesn’t “numb” but presents a flowery and balanced aroma when combined with other types of peppercorns. Another unique peppercorn I used is Tellicherry peppercorns, which is more pungent on the nose than regular black peppercorns. As with the salmon, I did spend a bit more to have a wild caught Alaska sockeye salmon filet which has a richer taste than the Atlantic salmon or salmon from coastal Scotland. Time to check out the recipe below:

Sichuan Peppercorn Cured Alaska Sockeye Salmon
1 – 1 ½ pound of wild caught Alaska Sockeye salmon skin-on whole filet
1 tablespoonful of whole Sichuan peppercorns
1 tbsp of whole Tellicherry peppercorns
1 tbsp of whole white peppercorns
1 tbsp of whole black peppercorns
1/2 tbsp of fennel seed
1/8 cup of kosher salt (you can increase to ¼ cup if a stronger salty taste is preferred)
1/8 cup of sugar

  • Descale the whole filet thoroughly, rinse under water, pat dry, and put it in a  rectangular Pyrex dish.
  • Combine all the peppercorns and the fennel seed in a mortar and crush them with a pestle. If you don’t have a mortar, put the peppercorns in a ziplock bag and crush them using the bottom of a heavy frying pan.
  • Combine the spices from the mortar with salt and sugar in a mixing bowl.
  • Rub 1/3 of the mixed spices onto the skin and put the skin side down back to the Pyrex dish, and rub the rest of the mixed spices on the top facing side of the filet. Make sure run-away peppercorns are put back in contact with the filet.
  • Seal the entire Pyrex dish with plastic wrap. Sealing it is important as you don’t want any odor from the fridge seeping into the salmon, and of course vice versa.
  • Lay another smaller dish so that it can firmly press down onto the salmon. Add canned food as weights to the top dish.
  • Cure the salmon inside the fridge between two and three days.
  • When done, discard all the peppercorns and seeds from the fish. Pat dry the salmon with a paper towel, removing the little residual fluid from the fish.
  • Use a very sharp knife and cut thin slices of salmon to the typical thickness of lox by simply angling the blade at a 45 degree cut. The key trick is to pin down the salmon with a paper towel so you can filet as close to the skin as possible.

The anticipation for this cured salmon is real as I have no idea how it would turn out. Also is that “cured” enough to kill all the bacteria of the raw fish or is it under “cured” to kill me? Let’s set aside the fear and eat the fish.

To showcase the Sichuan peppercorn cured salmon, I think of three ways: by itself, on dark rye bagel squares and farmer cheese, and on whole grain Italian bread and avocado.

By itself: I simply cut up a few slices of the salmon and sprinkle some capers to add a bit more salty taste. I intentionally undersalt the fish a bit so the capers help out in the end. Between the cured salmon and the Chablis, it’s an elegant pair that promises to please your taste buds – the briny Chablis is in tone with the mildly salty salmon, and the acidity of the wine brightens the creamy texture of the salmon!

On dark rye bagel squares: I toasted the dark rye bagel squares (i.e., cut a square peg out of a ground bagel😉) and smudged a layer of farmer cheese on top before layering pieces of salmon on it. A word on the farmer cheese…it has the neutral and crumbly texture that doesn’t interfere the taste of the salmon but is there to be the soft diary cushion that goes between the bagel and the salmon. I also cut up some home-made Sichuan peppercorn and garlic pickled onion to make it more fun.

On whole grain Italian bread: I used a baguette-shaped whole grain Italian bread and haloed the center of the bread so the avocado and salmon slices can stay put inside. Does avocado go well with FISH? Yes, it certainly does as the salmon has no unpleasant fishy smell or taste– in fact, fresh fish hardly has bad fishy smell and taste! The chalkiness, minerality and a tad of nuttiness of this Chablis is a no brainer to this fresh yet creamy sandwich. The layering of tastes just works.

Well, it has been two days after I ate all the salmon slices…no stomach or food poisoning issues. Another successful experiment on curing fish!

Check out other #winophiles' Chablis blogs!


  1. Thanks for the recipe. I am definitely putting it on my to make list.

  2. You are so brave, curing salmon on your own! I'm glad you survived! The food shots are sooooo pretty, they are making me really hungry!

    1. Thanks, still using a cell phone to take pictures. Maybe need to invest in a more powerful camera. But too heavy to carry it around! So far so good - no stomach problem :-)

  3. Congratulations on successfully curing your first salmon! I haven't tried this yet, I love the sound of your sichuan peppercorns, so you have me thinking....

    1. Thanks. You are right...when I crushed the peppercorns, they did make popping sound!

  4. I love the sound of this combination! And love the idea of the peppercorn kick!

    1. Thanks. It's a simple recipe that is effortless but works

  5. What a wonderful idea to cure salmon with Sichuan peppercorns! I don't think I've seen anyone else do that before, and I may have to try it myself. Also an excellent idea to pair with Chablis. Really nice post with great details!

  6. Thanks. It does work to cure salmon with all the peppercorns for flavors, but salt and sugar are the ingredients to kill bacteria. The fish needs to be sushi grade too :-)

  7. Thanks pinny you are such a great author liked your post