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Warm up with a pairing of crisp whites, steaming-hot mussels

| Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

On frigid, bone-chilling winter's nights, steamed mussels served piping hot make the perfect mid-week dinner choice. This easily prepared dish delivers warm comfort and enjoyment — especially when paired with crisp and delicious white wines.

Start by buying a pound or two of Prince Edward Island mussels available at better local fish counters. Make sure to use only the freshest mussels. The shiny, black shells should be firmly shut, otherwise the mussels have expired.

At home, soak the mussels and then scrub them to remove the “beards.” For a sure-fire, classic French-style recipe, simply melt an ounce or two of butter in a large pan and then saute 1 tablespoon of chopped shallots and 1 tablespoon of minced garlic (or more, to taste). Add 2 cups of heavy cream (half-and-half could work, too), 1 cup of dry white wine and several tablespoons of spicy Dijon mustard. Then, let the liquid reduce slightly.

Add the mussels and cover the pan. When the shells have opened, serve the mussels and the sauce in a large bowl. Add some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and garnish with thyme, rosemary and fresh parsley.

Serve the mussels with slices of crusty baguette to soak up the savory sauce. Pair the steaming delights with the following wines:

A prominent Portuguese family, the Vasconcelos, have owned the 2,400-acre Casal Branco estate for more than 200 years. Vineyards cover about 280 acres, while olive trees and an award-winning Lusitano stud horse farm cover other significant portions of the estate.

For the estate's delicious whites, such as the 2012 Quinta do Casal Branco Terra de Lobos, Tejo, Portugal (Luxury 43177; $9.99), the winemaker blends fernão pires, a native Portuguese variety, with sauvignon blanc. The vines grow in sandy loam in a Mediterranean climate of cold, dry winters and hot summers.

Fermentation takes place in stainless steel to maximize the wine's fruity, freshness.

Aromas of grapefruit and ripe melons unfold in the glass with light herbal notes. Ripe melon and pungent quince flavors balance with bright, refreshing acidity. Fruity echoes linger in the well-balanced, dry finish. Highly recommended.

Past are the times when typically oxidized Spanish whites failed to deliver the freshness so essential in well-balanced wines. The widespread introduction of stainless-steel tanks and other modern equipment has brought about terrific improvements.

Try, for example, the 2011 Bodega Ontañón Vetiver de Ontañón Rioja Blanco, Spain (Luxury 43328; $10.99). The wine uses 100-percent viura (aka macabeo) grapes grown in clay and limestone soils in the southern, slightly warmer Rioja Baja. The resulting fruit balances ample ripeness with refreshing notes. Aging for five months in used American oak barrels adds complexity.

The full, yellow color offers floral and ripe honeydew aromas with pronounced coconut notes derived from the American oak barrels. Similar flavors balance with fresh acidity through the fruity, yet dry, finish. Recommended.

Steamed mussels play an important role in the cuisine along France's Atlantic Coast, especially near the mouth of the Loire River. Naturally the region's wines complement the dish perfectly.

Try the tasty 2012 Domaine du Grand Poirier Gros Plant du Pays Nantais Sur Lie, France (Luxury 48067; $15.99) made from folle-blanche, a grape also grown to the south in Cognac. In the vineyards, winegrower Christian Jaulin follows lutte raisonné, a typically romantic French term of art meaning the “reasoned struggle.”

As a practical matter, it entails plenty of manual labor and taking risks to grow the grapes with the least amounts of synthetic chemicals and artificial interventions. Over time, it leads to healthier, more-sustainable soils and vines producing more naturally flavorful fruit. Jaulin views his role as a “sculptor who models a form for that beauty in the appointment.”

In this case, the efforts paid off beautifully, beginning with the wine's delightful, pale-yellow color. Light pear and grapefruit aromas unfold with smoky hints. Crisp grapefruit, ripe apple and tasty pear flavors integrate seamlessly with delightful creaminess. The latter arises from aging the wine before bottling sur lies — the spent yeasts. Crisp acidity balances the dry finish. Recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at ddesimone@tribweb.com.

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