Pairing Off: Popcorn Shrimp

Each week, Pairing Off attempts to find just the right bottle of wine to go with ordinary food.

As a kind of homage to Howard Johnson's, I really wanted to find a box of Mrs. Paul's breaded clams. They were a staple back in my grad school days...well, that's probably the wrong choice of words--teaching assistants in history earned roughly half the poverty level and we had to buy 900 books for each seminar. Mrs. Paul's clams were more of a special occasion meal.

It helped that they came with a pouch of pickled green things for making your own tartar sauce.

Unfortunately neither Albertson's nor Tom Thumb stock the brand. So for this week's pairing I ended up with Gorton's popcorn shrimp: unsold scraps of musty bait meat salted until reasonably palatable--not the sort of thing you'd think wine would handle well.

OK--so it probably is real shrimp. But after a turn in the oven, they looked somewhat like bits rejected by Fancy Feast in a soggy breaded shell. I finally tacked on about 30 minutes to the recommended 15 minute cooking time, which scorched a few pieces beyond recognition.

These turned out to be the best ones, by the way.

I'd picked up a bottle of Storrs 2007 Chardonnay, a California brand that the clerk at Veritas assured me would "maybe" stand up to frozen breaded shrimp. It's tart, both to the nose and on the tongue, smacking of green apples and lemon candy, but with a rounded follow through full of oak and vanilla bean.

All that sour acidity serves a useful purpose when paired to overbaked Gorton's. It slices through the must and salt, replacing those flavors with a more welcome spiciness. The oaky side does come forward, too--in an unpleasantly bitter form. Yet this is quickly soothed by a sensation of butter, butterscotch and vanilla.

On the other hand, its finish washes out. So you have a decent drinking Chard almost broken by storebought popcorn shimp, but able to battle back and hold its ground.

Yet in the end, the wine seems spent by the effort.