Muscadet: perfect partner for a hairy crab treat

This week two styles of rather obscure whites from the Loire Valley that are among the best wines to pair with hairy crab are introduced.
Ti Gong

Muscadet vines basking in the Loire Valley sun.

I’ve already written about the beauty of pairing wines with unadulterated steamed hairy crab served in the shell. While this remains the classic way to enjoy this delicacy now in season, the creative Chinese and Chinese-fusion chefs in our fair city are concocting an increasing number of inspired dishes with hairy crab.

These creations are delighting wine-lovers because the one thing every hairy crab dish begs for is a glass of wine.

When wine-lovers use the terms fresh, tart, zingy, crisp, sour and zesty they are all at least in part referring to the acidity of a wine. Some acids are naturally present in grapes while others are the by-product of fermentation. Natural acids like tartaric, malic and citric acids impart the freshest and purest flavors, while acids from fermentation including lactic, succinic and acetic acids tend to impart more subtle and complex flavor.

If you’re not into these wine technicalities then all you have to remember is that acidic white wines pair well with some foods, such as fish and shellfish.

There’s no shortage of exceptionally food-friendly whites with an abundance of acidity to be found in Shanghai. Spanish Albarinos, both Old and New World Sauvingnon Blancs and Rieslings as well as unoaked Chardonnays are all good partners with many fresh and salt water shellfish. 

This week I’ll introduce two styles of rather obscure whites from the Loire Valley that are among the best wines to pair with hairy crab.

Among gourmands, Muscadet has long been a preferred wine for shellfish — raw, steamed or highly seasoned. Muscadet is the western-most part of the Loire Valley quite near the Atlantic Ocean and is noted for very fresh wines with pleasant saltiness. A well-chilled glass of lean and minerally Muscadet wondrously awakens the freshness and natural flavors of shellfish including our beloved hairy crabs. 

Ti Gong

Region and style of Muscadet at a glance.

Because hairy crab dishes run the gambit between more delicately favored creations like bean sprout leafs with hairy crab paste and more flavorful and weightier dishes like marinated raw hairy crab and hairy crab paste with Chinese vermicelli, few wines are appropriate for all. Muscadet is, but buyers beware.  

In my early years of wine appreciation, Muscadet was one of the go-to wines for shellfish lovers. But the popularity of the wines led astray shortsighted producers who gave in to the high-yield tendencies of this variety. 

Muscadet, like Chianti and Soave, soon became associated with undistinguished and insipid wines. The road back to respectability has been long, difficult and even today not fully realized. While the term great Muscadet is still considered an oxymoron by many, more and more good examples are being made. 

The grape used to make Muscadet is Mellon de Bourgogne although locals often refer to it as simply Muscadet. This variety was originally from Burgundy where it was completely supplanted by more noble varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

Sometime in the early 17th century the grape made its way to Muscadet in the eastern Loire Valley where it shared acreage with other varieties.

Then the great freeze of 1709 killed the other vines and only the hearty, high-yield Mellon de Bourgogne vines survived. 

Because of its high-yields this grape can easily make bland and insipid wines, but in the hands of a skilled winemaker results can be much better. One secret to success is aging on the lees. This means the wine stays in contact with the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation. The interaction between the lees imparts greater flavor intensity and complexity. Almost all good Muscadet wines use this technique.

There are a few helpful tips to remember when buying and enjoying Muscadet wines. First, buy young wines as these wines aren’t particularly age-worthy and the youthful exuberance and lively qualities quickly dissipate. 

Most recent wines from the great 2012 vintage have been quite good. Avoid anything older. The second key 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 gradually develop as the wine warms up.  

The still inconsistent quality of Muscadet means it’s critical to choose the right producer. Recommended producers include Les Grands Presbyteres, Domaine de Begrolles, Chateau de la Ragotiere, Domaine de L’Ecu, Chateau La Gravelle and Chereau-Carre. 

It’s also important to buy wines from the more prestigious sub-appellations. At the bottom of the quality latter are the generic Muscadet AOC, while most the better wines come from the three sub-appellations Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire and Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu. 

The good news is that wines from these producers and sub-appellations will give you a quintessential high-quality Muscadet experience that’s perfect with hairy crab.

The bad news, good luck finding them in Shanghai.

Should you be unable to find a bottle of Muscadet, another extremely hairy crab-friendly Loire Valley white option that’s not called Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume is Vouvray. This appellation is east of Tours in the center of the valley and makes notable Chenin Blanc wines.

The styles range from dry to sweet and still to sparkling but all have bountiful acidity.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Hakkasan

5/F, No. 18, Zhongshan Rd E1, 6321-5888

Sevreet Maine Sur Lee Les Grands Presbyteres Muscadet AC

fancywines.com (website)

Domaine Breton La Dilettante Vouvray AC

Pudao Wines

376 Wukang Rd, 6090-7075

Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec Vouvray AC

Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Vouvray AC


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