The debate will likely go on forever: Which U.S. region produces the finest-eating crab? Is it the Eastern Seaboard, with its blue crab? Alaskan snow crab? Florida stone crab? West Coast Dungeness?
I love them all and won’t wade into the treacherous waters of the “best” discussion. Although I am partial to the meaty Dungeness species fished from the Pacific Ocean near where I live, that affinity is based largely on availability; fresh Dungeness is available at my local markets from November through early spring, and many top chefs plan their menus around Dungeness. But if I lived in Baltimore or Miami, blue or stone crabs, respectively, would likely be my favorites, just because they’re classics in their regions.
Crabs raised in U.S. waters typically are sweet, rich and have a pleasant briny character that I don’t like to see overwhelmed by intense flavorings. The spicy remoulades, mustard and cocktail sauces often served with crab can obliterate its sweet, pristine flavors, and to bury them in lasagnes, enchiladas and the like is egregious. Even the classic San Francisco stew, cioppino, arguably, makes feeble use of crab, when less expensive fish would do just fine. Let the crab stand alone, with only modest embellishment!
I painstaking pick at all the nooks and crannies of a whole crab, which has been seasoned only by the salted water in which it was cooked. If I’m in a decadent mood, I might dip the crab pieces into drawn butter. Crab cakes are another pure presentation of the sea-sweet meat, and a dollop (not slather) of aioli or remoulade can be welcome. Crab salad, if modestly seasoned, is delicious, and a crab melt on crusty sourdough can be divine.
Given my predilection for crab simplicity, it is any surprise that I enjoy white wines that are similarly singular? Just as I do with crab dishes, I favor simplicity in the wines I drink with them. Dry sparkling wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis and low-oak Chardonnays, Chenin Blanc, Muscadet and Riesling can be sublime companions with crab, enhancing but not overriding the crustacean’s delicate flavor and texture.
Just before Thanksgiving -- the traditional start of the Dungeness crab season in California -- I pulled the corks on two dozen U.S. white wines that I suspected would be good complements to steamed crab, and for the most part, they did not disappoint. I looked for crisp acidity, and (hopefully) salinity, to match the fresh, oceanic taste of the crab, and also for the background notes that turn simple compatibility into magical matches.
If one were to add tomatoes, sausages, red peppers and other assertive spices to a crab dish, all bets are off when pairing them with wine. I will leave that deciphering for later, and stick to my belief that racy white wines, and crab in its purist form, is one of the great food-wine matches in the world.
Here are some of my favorite wines for lightly adorned crab, in alphabetical order:
Barboursville Vineyards, Virginia, Viognier Reserve 2012 ($22): Its juicy core of apple and pear flavors and refreshing acidity make it suburb with crab. Elegant and refined.
Cakebread Cellars, Napa Valley (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($24): Crisp, layered and balanced, with kiwi fruit, lemongrass and green apple flavors and a gentle herbal note.
Dry Creek Vineyard, Clarksburg (California) Dry Chenin Blanc 2012 ($14): DCV has long been a flag-bearer for Chenin Blanc, and its current version offers crab-friendly citrus, apple and white peach notes, with mouth-cleansing acidity.
Geyser Peak Winery, Russian River Valley (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2011 “Block Collection River Ranches” ($21): Gooseberry, lemon and passionfruit flavors ride a wave of refreshment.
Good Harbor Vineyards, Michigan Fishtown White NV ($9): This Leelanau Peninsula winery offers a lively, dry white blend of Chardonnay, Vidal, Vignoles and Seyval. Don’t let the hybrid names fool you; this is a zesty, delicious wine.
Gloria Ferrer, Sonoma Brut, Sonoma County NV ($22): Predominantly Pinot Noir with a touch of Chardonnay, this bubbly tastes dry and creamy, with apple and citrus accents.
Grgich Hills Estate, Napa Valley (California) Fumé Blanc 2012 ($30): The racy acidity and dominant lemongrass character are fine foils for crab.
J Vineyards & Winery, California Pinot Gris 2012 ($15): Granny Smith apple and lemon flavors with a tropical fruit note and mouthwatering acidity.