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Cracking into the perfect pairing for shellfish
2016-03-31
By John H. Isacs

SHELLFISH paired with white wine is one of the gastronomy world’s longest and most successful marriages. The secret is shared by all the world’s great lovers; they simply need each other. Together they are immeasurably better than alone.

There’s one overriding success factor when pairing wine and seafood. Its all about the freshness, in wines this means acidity. Depending on the type of shellfish and preparation method of the dish, ample fruit, minerality and other qualities may all help a wine pair well with seafood but it’s the acidity that’s most important. This shouldn’t surprise epicureans as gourmet cultures the world round use acidity to embellish their seafood. In the West we sprinkle lemon on seafood, while Thais use lemon grass and in Shanghai seasonal hairy crab is always accompanied by a side of vinegar dipping sauce. Throughout the ages epicurean cultures have used acidic foods, liquids and sauces to bring out the best qualities of their seafood treats.

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From the singular beauty of raw Belon and Paimpol oysters from Brittany or South Island New Zealand Bluff oysters to the elaborate sauced crustaceans in traditional French cuisine, the delightful range of flavors, textures and perfumes of shellfish dishes is extraordinary. When my esteemed friends at Shanghai Daily informed me that the topic of this week’s iDeal section was Eastern China style shellfish dishes, I thought: great, I have the perfect wine!

Shellfish superstar

Muscadet is the quintessential shellfish wine whether you’re eating the crustaceans raw or cooked and highly seasoned. A well-chilled glass of lean and minerally Muscadet magically awakes the freshness and natural flavors of shellfish leaving your palate clean and desirous of another delicious bite. Shellfish in general are best with white wines that aren’t overtly fruity or heavily oaked, think Pinot Grigio or some New World Chardonnays. Instead shellfish find their ideal partners in singularly lean dry white wines like Muscadet. In the wine world, nothing else does lean as well as Muscadet. Additionally, the sea-borne minerality of Muscadet whites beautifully parallels the briny flavor of shellfish.

In the 1970s and 1980s Muscadet was the gourmet world’s go-to wine for shellfish lovers. Among my fond youthful memories is enjoying classic shellfish dishes like clams casino, oysters Rockefeller and Coquilles Saint Jaques with countless bottles of fresh Muscadet. Many producers reacted to this growing popularity by increasing production with a shortsighted disregard for quality and Muscadet gradually lost favor and was replaced by increasingly popular New and Old World Sauvignon Blanc and unoaked Chardonnay wines. New millennium wine lovers in Shanghai have little regard for or experience with Muscadet and as a result finding a representative bottle is somewhat challenging.

For decades, this once beloved white has languished in the background. Over 500 producers stopped making wines. But ever so gradually this wine is making a comeback, championed by a few diehard lovers as well as young sommeliers looking for something different to recommend to their customers. I’m hesitant to say that Muscadet is back, but I quite confidently say that this may well be France’s most underrated white wine. They’re both lovely fresh whites from the Loire Valley, but a good bottle of Muscadet is usually half the price of a good Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume. So what exactly makes Muscadet so special?

First, there’s the grape Mellon de Bourgogne, a variety that as the name suggests originated from Burgundy. This grape can easily make bland and insipid wines, but in the hands of a skilled winemaker results can be unforgettable distinctive. One secret is aging on the lees, or “sur lie” as they call it in France. This means the wine stays in contact with the dead yeast cells left over after fermentation. The interaction between the lees, or dead yeast cells, imparts greater flavor intensity and complexity. Most good Muscadet wines use this technique.

The inconsistent quality of Muscadet wines means it’s critical to choose the right producer. Much more so than most other styles of French wines, when choosing a Muscadet you must be producer selective. Recommended producers include Domaine de Begrolles, Chateau de la Ragotiere, Domaine de L’Ecu, Chateau La Gravelle and Chereau-Carre. If you can find Muscadet wines from these producers — admittedly something of a challenge in Shanghai — buy them.

There are also a few helpful tips to remember when buying and enjoying Muscadet wines. Buy young wines, as these wines aren’t particularly age worthy and the brilliance of their youth dissipates after a few years. Most vintages after the great 2012 vintage have been quite good. Avoid anything older. The second key to success is to serve well chilled, about 6-8 degrees Celsius. This will emphasize the best fresh qualities of the wine and allow the delicate fruit flavors to develop as the wine warms.

Should you be unable to find a bottle of Muscadet at your favorite seafood restaurant or wine shop — and this will unfortunately very likely be the case — there are several other white wine styles that are lovely partners to Chinese style shellfish dishes. Albarino whites from the Spanish northeast region of Rias Byass immediately come to mind, as do young Chablis wines. Both these bracingly dry acidic wonders work perfectly well with stir-fried shellfish whether the seasoning is light or medium strong. For the most robustly favored and spiced shellfish dishes, an equally hearty and extroverted New Zealand or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is best. Manzanilla or Fino Sherries are also a fine choice.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Variety:

Mascadet wines are made with a white variety that locals call Muscadet but the proper name of the grape is Melon de Bourgogne.

Key term:

Lean is a word used to describe a wine that’s quite dry, astringent and not overly fruity; it’s the opposite of flabby or fat wines.


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