A few years ago, I gathered with a panel of colleagues—wine and food critics and writers—around a table in Fort Bragg to decide which Mendocino wine was the best match for Dungeness crab that year. (It was an annual ritual, part of the county’s then-large-format crab and wine festival, and was always followed the next day by the task of judging the best crab cakes from local chefs. Good work if you could get it!)
Facing mounds of freshly shelled crab on our plates and a lineup of about eight Chardonnays, we took a collective deep breath (some on the panel weren’t huge fans of Chard, or at least of the somewhat fat, oaky versions still popular then), swirled and stuck our noses into the first glass, then sipped and chased the first sip with a little crab. There was a pause, and then one panelist, a prominent food editor from Los Angeles, said out loud what we were all thinking: “Well, if there’s ever a time for buttery California Chardonnay, it’s with Dungeness crab!” The pairing was fabulous.
The pairing is still fabulous. Only now, especially in the hands of the state’s best winemakers, Chardonnay has evolved into vibrant balance. It still carries sweet-seeming fruit—apple, pear, citrus and sometimes hints of stone fruit or pineapple—born of our warm, sunny growing season, making it a perfect foil for the sweet succulence of the crab. But, in broad strokes, there’s more judicious use of malolactic fermentation (the secondary, bacterial ferment that transforms harsh malic acids into rounder, more dairy-like lactic ones) and of oak itself—with many winemakers opting to reduce the percentage of new barrels for less oak spice and structure and more transparency of fruit character from exciting sites.
In the resulting brightness and nuance of today’s great Chardonnays, terrific pairings can be found beyond crab across a range of the season’s best, and most comforting, dishes. Think butter-poached lobster (or Newberg or, okay, make it lobster mac ‘n’ cheese), creamy seafood risotto (throw in mushrooms, a bridge to the earthier, minerally side of the wine), French onion soup (Chardonnay loves onions and root vegetables), chicken and dumplings (to say nothing of simple roast chicken or glorious chicken potpie), Southern shrimp ‘n’ grits (Chardonnay’s a sucker for corn), traditional pork chops with spiced apples or even the oh-so-popular cacio e pepe.
Here are 13 beautiful bottles that will turn any of the above into a winter feast.