Time to pass the Sherry, it's hairy crab season

Chestnuts, gorgon fruit, taro and other seasonal foods are all anxiously anticipated by local gourmets. But in the world of wine, one food stands out — hairy crab.
Time to pass the Sherry, it's hairy crab season

Vineyeard of La Mancha

Today’s iDEAL section deliciously delves into the seasonal Chinese delicacies of autumn. Chestnuts, gorgon fruit, taro and other seasonal foods are all anxiously anticipated by local gourmets. But in the world of wine, one food stands out — hairy crab.

Once a year, discerning shellfish lovers get the chance to savor these delectable crustaceans. Shaoxing rice wine is often enjoyed with crabs. I admit that top level Shaoxing rice wines are nice companions to hairy crabs, nonetheless I’ve long labored to convince my Chinese gourmet friends that I have a better solution: acidic white wines.

In the modern vernacular acidity is seldom a term of endearment. Yet in the fields of food and wine, it is everything. This is especially true of hairy crab. Traditionally, the acidic embellisher is a small saucer of vinegar served on the side. Can the right wine act in a similar yet even more synergistic manner? My answer is an emphatic yes! In this week’s column, I’ll introduce three very different Spanish white wines that all make lovely companions to our yummy hairy crabs.

Old-school classic

From the scenic and historic city of Jerez with a 3,000-year history, Sherry is one of the world’s greatest and most inimitable wines. It’s also exceedingly difficult and time-consuming to make. The most important grape used to make Sherry is Palomino, which is sometimes blended with Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel to make sweeter Sherries.

The first stage of making Sherries is the same as making white wines, but when the special Solera aging process begins, the wines take on their unique qualities. Pale Sherries like Manzanilla and Fino undergo the entire aging process protected by a naturally occurring yeast called flor that protects it from oxygen. Darker Sherries like Oloroso have higher amounts of alcohol added during the aging process and this kills the protective flor so the wines undergo oxidative aging. All Sherries must be aged three years in stacked rows of American oak casks that are stored in Cathedral-like buildings with ample aeration. The wine to be bottled is taken from the lowest barrels with the oldest wines.

While Sherry features a diversity of styles, from bone dry to extremely sweet, the best Sherries to match with hairy crabs are the more delicate dry styles, namely Manzanilla, Fino and Amontillado Sherries. Sherry lovers in Shanghai vigorously debate which of the three styles pairs best with the crabs but my vote goes to Manzanilla.

Manzanilla is the most delicate style of Sherry that’s aged under a very special type of flor that only grows in Sanlucar de Barrameda, near the ocean. One of the very best Manzanillas is Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla. This straw-colored, fresh and slightly salty wine goes very well with a wide variety of seafood including hairy crab. The zesty, bright qualities of the wine bring out the freshness and natural flavors of the crab while the alcohol cleanses the mouth. Other producers of Sherry to look for in Shanghai are William & Humbert, Gonzalez Byass and Lustau.

Longtime favorite

One of Spain’s best white wines comes from the rugged ocean-swept hills of the Gaelic wine region Rias Baixas in northwest Spain. This is the land of Albarino, a white wine grape that is believed to be genetically related to Riesling. The aroma and flavor profile is actually closer to Sauvignon Blanc with a bracing freshness. It’s the lively acidity in Albarino white wines that make them natural partners to hairy crab. One of the best wines of the region is the Martin Codex Albarino 2008.

Bodegas Martin Codax was founded in 1986 and named after a gallant Galician troubadour whose medieval poems and songs can be heard at the winery.

Their signature Albarino wine offers a bright straw-yellow green color elegant aromas and flavors of citrus, green apples and fresh herbs with a puckering acidic finish that will make even the tastiest of hairy crabs more delectable.

Other recommended Albarinos to accompany hairy crab are the Lagar de Fornelos, Adegas d’Altmira and Pazo de Barrantes. The majority of Albarino wines are delicate and susceptible to oxidation so I suggest only buying young vintages, best within three years of release. Always serve well-chilled, about 8 degrees Celsius.

New kid on the block

Wasn’t that long ago that wines from La Mancha were roundly frowned upon. For centuries, many of the wines from this hot-weather region lacked freshness, were overly ripe and sometimes even baked. But new investment in technology, better logistics and transportation and a concerted effort on quality has changed all this.

Today, La Mancha is Europe’s largest wine region in terms of vine cultivation area. The nine DO (Destination of Origin) and VT (Vino de la Terra) production areas of La Mancha make fine, very affordable wines. My La-Mancha white pick for hairy crabs is Cortijo Trifillas Verdejo & Sauvignon Blanc. This multi-award winning 50 percent Verdejo and 50 percent Sauvignon Blanc is a remarkably clean and vibrant wine with yellow straw color with greenish reflections, with elegant aromas of tropical fruits and notes of white flowers, persistent in the mouth, with fresh and well-balanced acidity. These attributes make it a perfect companion to hairy crabs. 

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