Rivaled only by its crustacean cousin the lobster, crabs sit at the very apex of marine epicurean delights. Served alone, these protein-rich shellfish are delicious, but when paired with the appropriate wine they become sublime. There’s a simple reason wines are the perfect companions for crab dishes: It’s all about the acidity.
When enjoying crab and wine, both the crab and wine are best served fresh. Fresh crabs retain their sweet natural flavors and snappy texture, while fresh wines feature good acidity. Gourmet cultures around the world use acidity to embellish their seafood. In the West we often sprinkle lemon on a dish, while Thais use lemon grass and in Shanghai when savoring our beloved hairy crabs, sides of vinegar dipping sauces are obligatory.
Historically, culinary cultures have used one or a combination of acidic foods, liquids and sauces to bring out the freshness and awaken the flavors of their seafood treats. Naturally, my acidic liquid of choice is a lovely white or sparkling wine.
The best wine to pair with crabs very much depends on the type of crab and how it’s prepared. While good acidity is the best starting point as it emphasizes the natural freshness of crabs, other qualities like fruitiness and minerality are also desirable.
One of the world’s most crab-friendly white wines is Albarino from the wine region Rias Baixas in the northwest of Spain. This is one of the most hilly and rocky wine regions in the world, and it has a rather harsh Atlantic climate. The wines produced in this barren, wind-swept land are highly aromatic and vibrantly fruity with mouth-puckering acidity. These qualities make them the perfect wines for gourmets who have a predilection for crab simplicity.
Whether it’s steamed stone crab claws from the East Coast of the US or Dungeness crabs from the Pacific Northwest served with drawn butter or behemoth snow and Alaskan king crab claws, the most simple crab dishes are naturals with Albarino whites. One of the best and largest Albarino producers is Martin Codex. You can easily find their wines in Shanghai.
Another vino varietal friend to crabs is Sauvignon Blanc. The most famous single variety Sauvignon Blanc wines come from the two Loire Valley regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. The hillside vineyards of this region in central France make some of the most elegant Sauvignon Blanc wines in the world. The best of them have gorgeous fruity and floral aromas and are quite dry, flinty and complex. These qualities make them particularly good wine to pair with elegant crab dishes like French crab bisque or sautéed soft shell crab Meuniere or Provencal style. Producers of note include Henri Bourgeois and Laporte.
There are also some remarkably good Sauvignon Blanc wines coming from the foothills of the Alps in northern Italy. Two producers of particular merit are Alois Lageder and Elena Walch, who make beautifully balanced Sauvignon Blanc wines that partner perfectly with Italian classics like linguine with crab in a light herbal white wine sauce.
Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Marlborough region of New Zealand are wonderful with spicy or more heavily flavored crab dishes like Singapore black pepper crab, Thai curry crab or Southeast Asian quick-fried chili crabs. Numerous producers make wines in the unique “in-your-face” Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc style that stand up beautifully to the most robustly flavored crabs. Good producers that are easy to find in Shanghai are Kim Crawford, Villa Maria and Mud House. Their Sauvignon Blancs are usually unoaked and have rich and exciting fresh tropical fruit, lime, fresh cut grass, mineral and other palate-stimulating flavors as well as good acidity.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some lovely sparkling wines to pair with crab dishes. Moderately priced options include Prosecco or CAVA while more complex and pricey alternatives are Franciacorta and Champagne.
Why not a red?
White or sparkling wines are usually your best bet to pair with crab dishes, but with some knowledge and application red wines can also match well. Traditionally we believed the tannins in red wines were the primary reason these wines clashed with seafood. While this precept held some truth, it is not the major reason.
A study on red wines and fish published in the ACS’ Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry by a Japanese molecular scientist who also happened to be a wine lover discovered that naturally occurring irons found in many red wines were the primary enemy of seafood. The study said these irons accentuate unpleasant sensations of fishiness, especially in the aftertaste. The study also pointed out that red wines with greater acidity worked better with seafood as the acid in a wine acted as a chelating agent reducing unpleasant sensations of fishiness. Therefore, when picking a red wine to match with crab and other seafood you should choose a red wine with low iron content, moderate tannins and lots of young fresh fruit flavors.
So the next time you’re savoring a crab dish and have a yen for a red, I suggest picking a young Pinot Noir, Beaujolais or Sangiovese wine. The low iron and tannins in these reds along with their relatively high acidity and fruitiness make them some of the best red wines to pair with crab dishes.
A few of my favorite red wine and crab combinations include Maryland crab cakes with a fresh Village-level red Burgundy, Chinese style crab in black bean sauce with a Cru Beaujolais or spicy crab marsala with a robust New Zealand Pinot Noir from Central Otago.
When enjoying these reds with crab dishes, it’s a good idea to chill the wines to about 14-16 degree Celsius. This will further accentuate the fresh qualities and natural sweet flavors of the crab and also cleanse the palate.