Shrimp & Grits & Wine

Pairing the perfect wine with this traditionally Southern dish is surprisingly easy.

By Georgene Mortimer, Island Winery

It took thousands of years for the Lowcountry’s distinctive cuisine to evolve out of ancient Native American and West African food ways. Shrimp and Grits is a great example of that culinary crossroads.

Grits are coarsely ground corn boiled into porridge. Unlike sweet corn, native U.S. corn needed to be pulverized and soaked in an alkaline solution in order to extract critical nutrients. Enslaved West Africans arrived in the Lowcountry beginning in the late 1600s and brought their culinary traditions with them. Working on coastal plantations, they combined locally caught shrimp with Native American corn. Shrimp and Grits is one of many unique culinary traditions that evolved through the generations in the Gullah-Geechee communities of our Sea Isles.

Fast forward to the1930s to find recipes for Shrimp and Hominy, also called “breakfast shrimp,” in Charleston cookbooks. Butter and salt were used to accent the fresh, sweet shrimp, and the coarse corn grits were cooked to a creamy smoothness and served for breakfast. Over the last two decades, chefs throughout the South have creatively reimagined this timeless dish, showcasing local ingredients and flavors. With the seemingly infinite varieties of this timeless dish come new opportunities for wonderful wine pairings.

Breakfast shrimp’s transformation into an iconic Southern dinner dish began when a New York Times food critic tasted chef Bill Neal’s recipe at Crooks Corner Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. Chef Neal incorporated cheddar and Parmesan cheese into the grits. He breaded the shrimp and fried it with smoky bacon, mushrooms, garlic and spices.

Since these ingredients were meant to enhance the natural balance between the shrimp and the grits, it is important that the wine does not interfere. A light-bodied wine with only a slight zest is a perfect choice. A young, unoaked Chenin Blanc from any region would pair well. Also, an Italian Prosecco, a dry sparkling wine, is a good choice, especially if you are enjoying your Shrimp and Grits at brunch.

Some variations of Shrimp and Grits use tomatoes, a perfectly acceptable choice by Southern standards. Typically, the shrimp is sautéed with fresh tomatoes, garlic and optional amounts of spicy heat. The saucy shrimp mixture is served over cheesy grits. The addition of tomatoes calls for a wine with more body and earthy qualities. A slightly oaked Chardonnay from Argentina or Chile is an excellent choice: or a Pinot Blanc from California, France or Italy.

Other recipes are bolder — some would argue too bold for such a delicate dish. The introduction of strong seasonings, peppers, tomatoes and highly spiced sausages suggest a Creole touch. Since Creole foods have strong Spanish and French influences, wines from these regions would be great companions. White wines from France’s Southern Rhône valley are excellent choices. Young Spanish red wines like Tempranillo or Garnacha would also be perfect.

Shrimp and Grits is on the menu in many of our Hilton Head Island eateries, and I guarantee that no two recipes will be the same. Fortunately, many of the wine suggestions mentioned in this column can also be found on wine lists across the Lowcountry.

The perfect bottle of handcrafted artisan wine awaits at Island Winery on Cardinal Rd. Complimentary tastings, wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. (843) 842-3141 or islandwinery.com.