With Seafood, Try Reeling In a Great White

By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

In summer, as you sit on your beach blanket on the sand with the ocean's 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 downtown 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 from Washington state that we recently enjoyed.

Folklore defines oyster season as the months with an R in them (i.e., September through April), although that doesn't hold water in the United States, where oysters are safe and delicious year-round. Legend also pegs the soft-shell crab season to moon cycles, defining its beginning as the first full moon in May (that's May 2 this year). Some say the season starts when waters warm to 50 degrees or higher, prompting crabs to begin shedding their hard outer shells.

Regardless of when you start seeing them, 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 deep-fried soft-shells, we prefer something with bubbles -- champagne or another sparkling wine, such as Spanish cava or Italian prosecco -- to refresh the palate by scrubbing oil off the tongue. Look for Segura Viudas Aria Cava Extra Dry.

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. Richer preparations of lobster have him turning to a dry Mandolas Tokaji made from Furmint grapes, whose "rich, honeyed flavor" and "racy acidity" Flynn described as "stunning" 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 rosé 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."

Rosé champagne also has great acidity. Our favorite for special occasions is Moet & Chandon Rosé 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, authors of "What to Drink With What You Eat," the 2007 IACP cookbook of the year, can be reached through their Web site,http://www.becomingachef.com, or atfood@washpost.com.

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