Love seafood but can’t find the perfect wine for your lobster thermidor? No need to shell out – think young and dry, says FIONA BECKETT
Shellfish and wine is one of the happiest of marriages. Whether it’s a few oysters or an opulent lobster thermidor, only with a glass of something cold and white is the taste experience complete. It is, however, one of those areas of food and wine matching where it’s easy to get into a bit of a rut. In an effort to broaden my horizons, I called on Mark Hix, executive chef of two of London’s most popular and glamorous seafood restaurants, J Sheekey and Scott’s, to run through a few options with him. The great thing about Hix as a chef is that he respects his ingredients. He might tweak a sauce to give it an extra edge but he won’t mess with a recipe for the sake of it. He’s also, as co-author of The Simple Art of Marrying Food and Wine, quite eclectic in his wine choices, being as comfortable with New World wines as with the classics. Scott’s has quite a wide range of bottles you wouldn’t anticipate. ‘We have a band of die-hard seafood lovers who are prepared to be quite adventurous,’ says general manager Matt Hobbs. ‘We’ll get a table ordering a plateau de fruits de mer who will go through several wines during the meal. One of our best-selling wines is a £5- a glass Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina.’ We ordered a series of dishes, some raw, some cooked and sauced, and tried a range of wines – mainly white – with them: Oysters with and without shallot vinegar Hix was firmly of the view that oysters were better without vinegar from a wine point of view. The zesty, lemony La Flor Sauvignon proved a surprisingly good match with the oysters on their own, almost like eating Sydney rock oysters. An oaked white Bordeaux, Château Guiraud 2005, worked slightly better, once a splash of shallot vinegar was added. Other possibilities: try the Languedoc’s favourite oyster white Picpoul de Pinet.
With the classic ‘marie-rose’ sauce (to which Hix had added a bit of a kick by way of some horseradish and Tabasco), we reckoned you needed a touch of sweetness, but a 2005 Ayler Kupp Mosel Kabinett Riesling proved too floral. A 2004 Pauletts Polish Hill Riesling from the Clare Valley, which had an evolved lime and kerosene character, worked better but the best match by far was an English wine – 2005 Chapel Hill Bacchus. A youthful, clean 2006 Martin Codex Albariño also worked well.
Other possibilities: Hix suggested a dry rosé or chilled minor red Burgundy like a Fixin. Pink fizz might also be fun.
Tiger prawns with garlic butter
We both thought sherry would be a great match for the garlicky, buttery juices but the La Gitana Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana we tried lacked the freshness and bite we were looking for. A glass of Tio Pepe, however, hit the spot. We also liked a crisp 2005 Marqués de Riscal Rueda.
Other possibilities: Australian Verdelho.
Here, being able to taste the delicate flavour of the crab was critical so we first went for a classic Pouilly Fumé 2005 from Domaine Coulbois which worked predictably well as opposed to a lightly oaked Christophe Cordier Pouilly Fuissé, which was disappointing. The big surprise though, was that Bacchus, which again proved an excellent match. ‘This is a top seafood wine,’ said Hix approvingly.
Other possibilities: a modern dry German Riesling.
Baked spider crab
A rich, spicy dish, including ginger, garlic, chilli and sherry which led Hix to the Tio Pepe again, though it didn’t perform quite as well this time. What did work wonderfully, particularly with the brown crabmeat and buttery crumbs, was a buttery Les Hauts de Smith Pessac- Léognan 2004 (the second white of Smith- Haut-Lafitte). It was also surprisingly good, by way of contrast, with the La Flor Sauvignon Blanc.
Other possibilities: a Viognier or fat Southern French blend of Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier would have the requisite weight for the sauce and would deal well with the spice.
Lobster mayonnaise Although cold shellfish normally calls for crisp wines, sweet, rich lobster meat needs a more full-bodied white, especially if served, as at Scott’s, with a rich mayonnaise and chips. A favourite of Hix’s, a big, buttery Dog Point Chardonnay from Marlborough in New Zealand (the 2005) hit the spot. An intense, minerally Punggl Pinot Grigio 2006 from the Alto Adige also worked in quite a different register, creating a clean, minerally counterpoint, but we found the lesser whites such as the Pouilly Fuissé generally foundered.
Other possibilities: vintage Champagne or – a nice idea from Hix – Bandol rosé.
Hix’s thermidor sauce was atypically mustardy, which made crisper wines like the Pinot Grigio perform better than we expected. Hix also put up a chilled 2004 Peregrine Pinot Noir from New Zealand which was a touch sweet but proved a red could work with this sort of sauce.
Other possibilities: a red Burgundy with a bit of bottle age would have been ideal. Griddled scallops with chilli and garlic Two potentially conflicting influences here – the sweet, caramelised flavour of seared scallops and the spiciness of the chilli, which I thought might be a bit much for the Dog Point Chardonnay. It actually matched pretty well, though we thought a 2006 Wachau Grüner Veltliner from Weingut Pfarre had the edge. The Tio Pepe worked again too though the Polish Hill Riesling and the Bacchus were a bit overwhelmed.
Other possibilities: Albariño would have been a good pairing here too.
Herb-roasted shellfishwith garlic butter
A dream dish of lobster, prawns and razor clams which combined the sweet flavours of roasted shellfish with garlic and herbs. Flagging a bit by this stage, we only tried three wines: the Albariño (good), the Peregrine Pinot Noir (much better here than with the thermidor sauce) and a glass of Scott’s house Champagne, Théophile Roederer Brut – the star pairing.
Other options: top New World fizz such as Pelorus.
Although the tasting confirmed many of our existing prejudices we both landed on interesting insights. One was the part that the age and temperature of the wine plays in matching shellfish, especially when it’s raw or unsauced. Younger wines, with intense, clean flavours, generally work better than more mature ones that have been subject to a degree of oxidation. Secondly, dry whites are a much more reliable choice than off-dry, aromatic ones (though the Bacchus was a great hit with us both). And thirdly, matching shellfish is as much to do with mood as food. In the right setting (a beach café) a simple fresh wine can be as pleasurable as a great one.
Written by Fiona Beckett