Seasonal seafood embracing whites from the heart of France
Shanghai is a paradise for seafood lovers. Our beautiful city offers epicureans a diverse bounty of treasures from the seas. As portrayed in today’s featured food article, summertime in Shanghai is blue swimming crab, mantis shrimp, yellow croaker and hairtail fish time.
Since primordial times, fish and shellfish have nourished and sustained mankind. Scientists believe that with about 20-25 percent protein by weight, consumption of seafood along with meats gave our ancestors the necessary protein-rich diet to evolve larger brains.
Strangely the term seafood only entered the modern vernacular in 1836 when New Englanders combined the words sea and food. Long before this, gourmet cultures around the world discovered that acidity enhances the freshness and flavors of seafood. Witness vinegar in China, lemongrass in Thailand or lemon in the west, just to name a few. Readers will not be surprised to learn that my acidic flavor enhancer of choice is wine, and this week my seafood embellisher par excellence is a Sauvignon Blanc wine that hails from the heart of France.
Sauvignon Blanc is believed to have originated in the Gironde area of southwest France in the early to mid-17th century and is likely a descendant of the more ancient variety Savagnin. Today, numerous regions produce quality Sauvignon Blanc wines with some of the most elegant expressions hailing form the Loire Valley.
The majestic Loire River is France’s longest river, originating in the southern Massif Central then undulating north and west to the Atlantic Ocean. The eastern portion of the river is surrounded by picturesque rolling hillside vineyards that contribute to some of France’s best white wines. The Romans first made wines here in the first century and during the Middle Ages. Centuries later, Catholic monks lovingly tended the vines of the Loire Valley to make wines for the holly sacrament. Historically, Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes were cultivated but reds from this region were overshadowed by those from Burgundy.
Fortunes changed in the late 19th century when the phylloxera epidemic devastated the vines of the Loire Valley and the rest of France. Most regional growers replanted with the red varieties with the Bordeaux white grape Sauvignon Blanc because it was easier to graft to the disease-resistant American rootstock. This accident of misfortune and convenience gave birth to a new style of single variety Sauvignon Blanc wine. The cool local climate and special Kimmeridgian, limestone and flint clay soils proved ideal for Sauvignon Blanc vines and resulted in exceptionally aromatic and elegant wines with excellent acidity.
The most prestigious white wines of the Loire Valley are made from vineyards surrounding the two villages of the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume. Over the past century, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume have fervidly competed for the title of being home to the world’s greatest single variety Sauvignon Blanc wine. Arguably, since the late 20th century Sancerre has claimed the upper hand, but the wines of Pouilly-Fume still have devotees. Both styles of whites are renowned for their aromatics and firm acidity but it’s the smoky nature of Pouilly-Fume whites that distinguishes them and helps make them particularly good companions to seasonal Shanghai seafood delights.
Fume in French means smoke, and pertinent to the wines it refers to a special smoky bouquet. Wine lovers sometimes describe this aroma as resembling gun flint, and it’s considered an important distinguishing factor for Pouilly-Fume wines. Wines lacking these signature aromas are considered inferior. Other moniker aromas and flavors in these wines are citrus fruit, lemon grass, green grass, minerals and white flowers.
Most producers in Pouilly-Fume use little or no oak. The judicious use of oak is meant to preserve the pure unrestrained exuberant fruitiness of the Sauvignon Blanc variety. We call these producers the traditionalists. But there also exists a school that some refer to as new wave producers who ferment and age in small oak. Their goal is to make complex and age-worthy white wines like the Grand Cru whites of Cote de Beaune in Burgundy.
I’ve had the pleasure to taste several of these new wave Pouilly-Fume wines and while they are excellent wines. When enjoying seasonal seafood in Shanghai, I suggest sticking to the lighter and crisper traditional style wines. These classically dry and lean wines better illuminate the freshest and most desirable qualities of seafood.
Several top producers make both Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre wines, and I’ve always found it pleasurable and enlightening to compare them in side-by-side tastings. Unfortunately, sourcing Pouilly-Fume wines in Shanghai is challenging and rather costly but intrepid shoppers will find wines from Chateau de Tracy, Didier Dagueneau, Joseph Mellot, Henri Bourgeois and Pascal Jolivet.
The healthy dose of acidity in all good Pouilly-Fume wines means they should be served well chilled or about 8 degress Celsius. This is especially important in the summer season.
Save for 2011, most Pouilly-Fume vintages over the past decade have been good to very good with the excellent 2015 and 2014 vintages standing out.
Where to buy in Shanghai
Chateau de Tracy Pouilly-Fume Mademoiselle de T
Chateau de Tracy Pouilly-Fume Haute Densite
Chateau de Tracy Pouilly-Fume
Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fume en Travertin
Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fume La Porte de L’Abbaye
Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fume La Demoiselle