In summer, as you sit on your beach blanket with the waves lapping near your feet and the gulls flying overhead, you lick your lips. What do you taste?
The salt in the air reflects the salty ocean water in which fish and other sea creatures brine naturally all their lives. And the innate saltiness of most seafood is the key to selecting a wine. Just as a squeeze of lemon or other citrus juice is a natural accent for seafood’s flavor, a high-acid white wine or sparkler can provide the right contrast.
Which wines? As the late food writer and memoirist Richard Olney wrote, “Like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet washes down raw shellfish to perfection.”
Perfection is a pretty heady descriptor, but the combination is indeed faultless. All three of those Loire Valley whites have enough acid to offset the saltiness of shellfish.
After 14 years at chef Bob Kinkead’s seafood-focused Washington, D.C. restaurant Kinkead’s, sommelier Michael Flynn sees these minerally Old World whites as the perfect foils for East Coast oysters, which have a salty earthiness. We tasted a flawless example of that when we recently paired a refreshingly lemony Remy Pannier Sancerre (France) with some briny Island Creek oysters from Massachusetts. Flynn is such a purist that he pairs different wines with Pacific oysters. “West Coast oysters, such as Kumamotos, have a sweeter characteristic to them,” he notes. “These do very well with New World – and specifically New Zealand – sauvignon blanc.” Indeed, our Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc proved an ideal counterpoint to the Hood Canal oysters that we recently enjoyed.
Soft-shell crabs offer plenty of wine-pairing opportunities. In a recent tasting at home, our favorite combination with simply sauteed soft-shells was a Sacred Hill Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.
Many believe that the delicate sweetness of crab is perfectly complemented by the delicate sweet notes of some Rieslings. That’s certainly one delicious way to go. But, as always, a specific dish’s preparation can point you in other directions.
With more elegant soft-shell preparations, such as crabs sauteed with almonds, Flynn recommends a white wine with a touch of richness. He describes a Torbreck Woodcutter’s Semillon from Australia as a “good value” (at $18) for its citrus and honey notes, and for nice acidity providing the wine with “structure and elegance.”
Alternatively, a white Maconnais such as a Les Chailloux Pouilly-Fuisse provides the richness of chardonnay – another wine Flynn recommends with lobster.
With crab cakes, consider an unoaked chardonnay or, again, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc was an amazingly synergistic match for crab cakes during our tasting.
Seafood dishes with some zip, such as Thai-style mussels made with red chili paste, lemon grass and coconut milk, call for a different approach. “That’s a case where the spiciness of the dish tends to determine what the match is going to be,” Flynn says. “I would go at least a little sweeter with the wine to counteract the spiciness.” His pick: an off-dry Alsatian white, such as a late-harvest Riesling or Sylvaner.
What if you’re at a restaurant or elsewhere where everyone’s having something slightly different? “I think rose champagne covers a whole lot of bases,” Flynn says. “The bubbles tend to cleanse the palate, and the weight of the wine tends to be sufficient for either fish or even meat dishes.”
Rose champagne also has great acidity. Our favorite for special occasions is Moet &Chandon Rose Imperial, which deserves diplomatic status for its ability to get along with virtually any food. And yes, we’ve even enjoyed it at the beach.
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page are authors of “What to Drink With What You Eat,” the 2007 IACP cookbook of the year.
Wines for seafood
New Zealand, $19; A juicy, vibrant wine that refreshes with grapefruit and pineapple. Pair with asparagus, oysters, salads, sweeter seafood and shellfish
France, $60; Its strawberry nose opens up into an elegant, full-bodied sparkler. Pair with virtually anything, including red meat, seafood and shellfish
France, $20; Fresh, dry lemon and grapefruit on the nose and palate. Pair with chicken, goat cheese, oysters, salads, brinier seafood and shellfish
New Zealand, $16; A sweet celery nose reveals grapefruit and lime in its flavors and finish. Pair with Chinese food, chicken, crab cakes, pork, sweeter seafood and shellfish
Prices are approximate. Contact stores to verify availability.