Nina Caplan: light whites to go with British shellfish

A delicate Soave with an elegant sea bream, a Muscadet with moules marinières, a salad slaked with self-effacing Vinho Verde, or an unoaked Chardonnay to water a risotto primavera. 

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“In the spring,” Tennyson informs us in “Locksley Hall”, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” – which may well be the case. Never having been a young man, I wouldn’t know. My feminine fancy takes spring as a signal to revive my hibernating affection for light wine, although some of the vagaries are the same. Promiscuity, in wine as in love, is understandable but liable to end badly; drunkenness, too, is a social disease. When narrowing one’s options, however, it is vital to pick a companion you won’t tire of quickly. Like a Victorian swain, I try to ensure that my chosen one will be an asset to my dinner table – preferably without requiring too much financial outlay. Spring is a terrible time to go bankrupt.

The trouble is that my affection for white wine, rather like many of the wines themselves, has no staying power. Whereas a grippy Syrah from the northern Rhône or a rich, round Bordeaux blend will linger in my thoughts long after the empty bottle has received a last fond cuddle (yes, I cuddle wine bottles) and been placed on the recycling heap, most of the whites I drink vanish as swiftly from my memory as from my glass.

Maybe this is apt: spring always feels like the briefest season, so it should probably be accompanied by a fresh, zesty young wine that demands your concentration for a moment and then casts you free, without regret. A delicate Soave with an elegant sea bream, a Muscadet as light as breath with moules marinières, a salad slaked with self-effacing Vinho Verde, or an unoaked Chardonnay to water a risotto primavera and bring out the green – these are light but consequential fancies. A wine that has barely celebrated its first birthday may be the closest many of us get, these days, to youth.

Shellfish needn’t be a spring pleasure – and if it’s native oysters you’re after, you’re out of luck between the end of April and September. But I crave them at this point in the year so it’s useful that the wines I want to drink with them suit the season. This penchant helps me through less amenable times of year: just as the taste of a good mussel can transport you to the coast even if you’re slurping it in the Sahara, a winter shellfish dinner, served with the right light wine, can offer a whiff of spring.

In February, I went to the Wright Brothers’ new Spitalfields branch, where glowing tanks of doomed crustaceans shuffle around, trying to avoid the hungry diner’s outstretched claw. The seafood there is terrific and as fresh as a spring breeze but the wine list lacks that great seafood accompaniment (and exception to the rule of “forgettable” whites): Chablis. There’s a Petit Chablis, which is a Chablis in the way that London Stansted Airport is in London. Still, there’s a Picpoul de Pinet, the racy Languedoc crowd-pleaser from Félines Jourdan, and a 2010 Domaine R de la Grange Muscadet so restrained that its flavours of lemon, stone and salt-scented Atlantic breezes seem boxed away behind thick glass, a little like those crabs and lobsters.

That excellent winter dinner gazed wistfully forward and now I look back, smugly, at my months-ago self, gulping light wines and sucking on sea creatures in an attempt to hasten spring. Sometimes a dalliance proves surprisingly lasting; the lightest flirtation may come back to warm us when we least expect it.

Next winter, when I’ve forgotten the pleasures of white wine along with the scents of spring, there’ll come a crisp evening that requires the rigour of a Chablis, perhaps to accompany a native oyster, or a brief splash of watery sunshine to celebrate with a similarly pale gold wine. Nothing important really sticks to a timetable – not love, nor wine, nor English weather. Tennyson knew this. I wonder in which colour liquid his lovelorn narrator chose to drown his sorrows?

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article appears in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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