Pairing wine with shellfish


Photograph: Susie Carter

Photograph: Susie Carter

In the sixth and final chapter on pairing wine with key ingredients, food writer Susie Carter looks at the best matches to complement shellfish.

Shellfish is very delicate in flavour, so it’s important not to overpower it with the wine you serve. France tends to have a more austere approach to aromatic whites than New World producers, particularly with Sauvignon Blanc. A fresh mineral Sancerre or an oaked Pessac-Léognan would work far more successfully with bivalves like mussels and clams in a simple platter of fruits de mer, for example, than a New Zealand fruit bomb.

Crustaceans, such as crab, prawns and lobster, tend to have a richer flavour and chewier texture, so a more weighty wine is needed to show them at their best. Viognier is an excellent choice as the stone-fruit flavours give the impression of sweetness which complements the slight sweetness of the meat, though a buttery white Burgundy would also work well, particularly if you’re serving them with mayonnaise or a rich creamy sauce.

If you’re looking to serve oysters for Valentine ’s Day this year, the classic matches of Champagne, Muscadet and Chablis are reliable choices, particularly if you eat them with a squeeze of lemon; their dry minerality marrying well with the steely flavour of raw oysters. However, do also consider Manzanilla Sherry – the salty flavour from its biological maturation really highlights the fresh brininess of the oyster, while low acidity proves a better match if you prefer your oysters au naturel.

One of the most memorable shellfish dishes I’ve had in recent months was an enormous pile of mussels shared with friends at Chez Hortense, an old-school fish restaurant on the shore of the Bassin d’Arcachon at Cap Ferret. Rather than being served in the more common marinière style, they had been cooked almost dry in a mixture of garlic, parsley, breadcrumbs and tiny pieces of lardon. The Muscadet that accompanied that night worked well, but when recreating the recipe at home, my favourite pairing is an aged white Rioja. The fuller body matches the weight of the oily sauce that clings to the shells and there’s just enough acidity to cut through the richness whilst still being in balance. The slightly oxidised style works brilliantly with garlic, while the toasty oak flavours marry wonderfully well with those smoked lardons. My version of their secret recipe is below and for me, the 2004 Viña Gravonia would be the perfect match.

Cap Ferret Mussels

Serves 4

175 ml dry white wine

2 kg live mussels, scrubbed

3 tbsp olive oil

100 g smoked lardons, finely chopped

8 garlic cloves, crushed

a small bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

4 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs

  • Bring the wine to the boil in a large saucepan, then tip in the mussels and put on the lid. Steam for 5 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally.
  • Meanwhile, heat the oil in a second large saucepan and fry the lardons for 3 minutes or until starting to brown. Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute, then stir in the parsley and breadcrumbs. Lower the heat and cook for a couple more minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the mussels are ready, transfer them to the lardon pan with a slotted spoon and toss to coat in the breadcrumb mixture, adding just enough of the mussel cooking liquor to create a thick sauce that clings to the mussels and shells.

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