It’s Oyster Time: Revisiting the Classics and Finding Some Outliers
Text and photographs by John Szabo, MS
December 18, 2015
It’s December, and oysters are at their plump and flavourful best. Both east and west coast varieties are outstanding. If you are an oyster fan, this is your favorite time of year.
A recent chance conversation on the current deliciousness of bivalve mollusks with Julius Chapple, Front of House manager at Rodney’s Oyster House, led to a brilliant idea: assemble a group of savvy tasters, pull together a wide range of wines, and shuck a bunch of oysters. The ostensible plan was to revisit classic wines – the ones traditionally served with oysters – and confirm their supremacy, while at the same time throwing a few outliers into the mix to see if we might find some future classic matches. Although it’s hardly ground breaking work, it is nevertheless instructive from time to time to test assumptions, and, well, attempt to break new ground. I know, I know. Somebody has to do it.
The results? Often comforting, occasionally shocking, rarely disappointing. It’s true that the best matches for oysters fall into a fairly narrow band of wine style: crisp, dry white wine, with or without bubbles. But the nuances between different oyster species and the subtleties of each grape within that narrow band proved fascinating. And then there was the surprise red wine, and just off-dry whites… If you’re looking for the perfect wine and oyster pairing, read on.
The Venue: Rodney’s Oyster House, 469 King St. West, Toronto
Rodney Clark is the original Toronto Oysterman. His father asked him to deliver his first box of oysters in the late 1970s. And then, “I took it a little overboard”, says Rodney. His eponymous oyster house on King West has become a Toronto institution, responsible in no small measure for spawning Toronto’s great oyster culture over the last twenty years. Julius Chapple is the affable Front of House Manager, in charge of the tight but well-chosen wine list. Treat yourself to an afternoon/evening of oysters soon at this oyster paradise.
Jamie Drummond, Director of Programs/Senior Editor at Good Food Media. Jamie is one of Toronto’s best-known faces in the wine world, and best-known accents (he’s from Edinburgh, Scotland). Before co-launching the weekly online publication Good Food Revolution in 2010, Drummond’s CV includes Wine Director at the posh Granite Club, and later, for Jamie Kennedy’s restaurant empire, including the legendary JK Wine Bar, now sorely missed. Those who know him well, both love, and fear, his sense of humour as well as his propensity for delivering TMI.
Charles Baker, Director of Sales, Stratus Wines (and much more). Born on the wrong side of the vineyard, CB has scrapped his way from the damp tourist bistros of Quebec City, ripe with the stench of pisse-dru, to find himself peddling wine to the freshly tattoed sommeliers of Toronto. He attempts to empty the warehouse that Stratus fills every vintage with the fruit of its Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard, forages lost riesling from the Niagara Escarpment for the Charles Baker Wines project, and scours the planet to bring home wines made from grapes no one can pronounce for Cru Wine Merchants. In his spare time, he dreams of the wines of the Roussillon through a fledgling project, picks up Lego, and taste-tests scones for Baker and Scone.
Magdalena Kaiser, Director of PR, Wine Marketing Association of Ontario. Daughter of Inniskillin co-founder Karl Kaiser, a Canadian wine pioneer, Magdalena was literally born into the wine industry. At the age of five she was dragged into child labour to bottle wine, before achieving a paying position at Inniskillin as a young teen. Today, MK proudly showcases Ontario wine to top wine media and trade from home and abroad for WMAO (“wham-oh”!). Still apparently longing for hardship, she is currently enrolled in the Masters of Wine program.
Chris McDonald, Author, Consulting Chef. Chef McDonald is one of Toronto’s most respected, and sharpest knives in the kitchen. He established himself as a Toronto culinary pillar at Avalon in the 1990s, a top 5 Toronto establishment, until Hooters moved in across the street and ruined the neighborhood. Chef then moved on to beloved Cava Restaurant, the city’s most authentic Spanish restaurant (and more). McDonald is currently writing a highly anticipated book on sous-vide cooking techniques and recipes, while dreaming up his next restaurant venture. On the side, he has a disproportionate love for tafelspitz and Austrian wines.
Dr. Ian Martin, Ph.D., ex-university professor, sports dome operator, future restaurateur. Dr. Martin (full disclosure: my former University of Toronto Italian professor) is a lifelong culinary researcher, accomplished home chef, and well-travelled, discerning wine lover. Based in Ottawa, Martin spends his time collecting money from sports teams playing in his facility, the Ottawa Coliseum, and teaching friend and Top Chef Canada winner Rene Rodriguez how to make a proper spaghetti carbonara. Dr. Martin is also regularly spotted in wine cellars across Europe, his bicycle parked outside. Stay tuned for his restaurant venture, coming soon to Ottawa.
Stephen Cohen, owner, Groupe Soleil Imports. Over the last decade, Stephen has slowly, quietly but assuredly, amassed Canada’s most impressive collection of grower champagnes in his import portfolio, representing highly sought after names like Cedric Bouchard and Pascal Agrapart, among many others, as well as other top names from around the wine world with particular strengths in Italy and France. He is clearly a man of taste. Also an avid cyclist, Stephen enjoys the challenge of the notoriously steep and twisty roads of the Langhe hills in Piedmont.
John Szabo, Master Sommelier and Principal Critic, WineAlign. You didn’t think I’d just watch, did you?
Guest Panelist and chief shucker: Julius Chapple, Front of House Management, Rodney’s Oyster House
The selection was based on acknowledged classics of the oyster genre, made by benchmark producers. There are, of course, dozens of others that would have fit the bill, but the list was purposely capped at a baker’s dozen (not a Charles Baker) to make the exercise manageable. Jamie Drummond was overheard lamenting, “I wish I had grabbed some Vouvray, Vinho Verde, Cartizze Prosecco, or Picpoul to bring along…” We’ll save those for oyster pairing 2.0. Below is the final list of wines, collectively selected by the panelists out of about 20 initial options brought on the day, minus one tragically corked bottle of champagne.
Henry of Pelham 2008 Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche, Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($44.95)
Charles Baker 2014 Riesling, Ivan Vineyard, VQA Twenty Mile Bench ($27.00)
Raventos I Blanc 2014 Silencis Xarel-lo, Conca del Riu Anoia, Catalonia ($24.95)
Servin 2012 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre, Burgundy, France ($39.95)
Ken Forrester 2014 Chenin Blanc Old Vines, Stellenbosch, South Africa (17.95)
Domäne Wachau 2012 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Kellerberg, Wachau, Austria
Domaine de L’Ecu 2013 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine ‘Orthogneiss’, Loire Valley, France ($25)
Pascal Cotat 2014 Sancerre Les Monts Damnés, Loire Valley, France ($66)
Gaia 2014 Thalassitis Santorini Assyrtiko, Greece ($23.95)
Rodney’s “Sea Legs” White, Niagara Peninsula (a proprietor’s blend made by Cave Spring, available only at Rodney’s)
Loimer 2007 Riesling Langenlois Steinmassel, Kamptal
Arianna 2013 Occhipinti Frappato IGT Terre Siciliane, Sicily, Italy ($36.95)
Malivoire 2014 Gamay “Le Coeur”, Niagara Escarpment, Canada (Approx. $20)
Each panelist was assigned one type of oyster, and tasked with finding the top three pairings from the wines available. The panel then sat collectively to taste through each oyster/wine combinations and vote on the ultimate match.
The Oysters, And Top Matches
1 – Onset Bay (Crassostrea Virginica), Bourne, Massachussetts
A plump and meaty east coast oyster with pronounced salinity, beige-coloured belly and pale green, deeply frilled gills.
Cotat 2014 Sancerre
Charles Baker 2014 Riesling Ivan Vineyard
“I love the herbaceousness and the complexity the oyster brings to the fore in the wine”, said Chris Macdonald of the Sancerre, which beat out the Riesling by the narrowest of margins, thanks to Baker voting against his own wine. “The fruit was enhanced (by the salinity of the oyster), but lowered the perception of complexity”, said Baker of his Riesling.
2 – Pemaquid Select (Crassostrea Virginica), Damariscotta River Estuary, Maine
A particularly tender oyster, with a large, sweet-buttery adductor muscle, balanced saltiness
Cotat 2014 Sancerre
Occhipinti 2013 Frappato
This was another very close call. The more moderate salinity of the Pemaquid opened the door to a red wine pairing, and indeed the Frappato was several panelists’ top choice. In the end, the Sancerre edged into top place again, proving that it is one of the wine world’s gifts to oysters and a very safe bet.
3 – Totten E.C. (Crassostrea Virginica), Totten Inlet, Puget Sound, Washington State
Very plump meat with large adductor muscle delivering pronounced cucumber and melon rind flavours, minerally-copper notes, and a sweet-creamy alkaline finish.
Ken Forrester 2014 Old Vines Chenin Blanc
Domaine de L’Écu 2012 Muscadet
These were both excellent matches, and a close call. The richness and minerality of the oyster played beautifully with the maturing, stony and unusually dense muscadet. But the old vines vinosity of the Forrester, coupled with a vague impression of sweetness from ripe fruit on the palate won the day. The majority of panelists were enthused by the exceptional length and creamy mouthfeel produced by the oyster-wine combination on the palate.
4 – Sand Dune (Crassostrea Virginica), Souris, Prince Edward Island
A very large, plump and meaty oyster (which could technically be called a Malpeque, but the Rolls Royce version) with mild salinity and sweet, pleasantly grassy flavor.
Charles Baker 2014 Riesling, Ivan Vineyard
Henry of Pelham 2008 Cuvée Catharine Carte Blanche
The majority favoured the CB Riesling for the combination of residual sugar, high acid and youthful citrus fruit in the wine, which harmonized magnificently with the plump, mildly saline Sand Dune. Fruit and herbs washed over the palate in balance, the oyster fattening up the wine, the wine slicing through the meatiness of the oyster. The bubbly Carte Blanche was, for similar reasons, a very close second (I personally preferred it, finding the effervescence to lift he oyster to another dimension).
5 – Mystic (Crassostrea Virginica), Mystic River, Long Island Sound, Connecticut
A small sized, deep-cupped oyster, with pronounced earthy-truffle flavor, high salinity, and toothsome texture.
Occhipinti 2013 Frappato
Loimer 2007 Riesling Steinmassel
This was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tasting. The Frappato was a clear winner, a lighter Sicilian red to be sure, but one with solid, fine-grained tannic structure. Contrary to urban legend, the red didn’t turn into a tinny, bitter mess, but rather, the brininess of the oyster both softened its texture and exposed the wonderful sweet cherry fruit. The finish lined up the savoury-earthy flavours of both the wine and the oyster for perfect harmony. The excellent Loimer Riesling, with its mature flavours, candied citrus and pinch of sweetness, performed admirably against the tough competition, however.
6 – Marina’s Top Drawer (Crassostrea Gigas), Cortes Islands, British Columbia
A classic west coast oyster, intensely flavoured with cucumber and melon rind, and a strong copper-mineral finish.
Servin 2012 Chablis 1er Cru
Domäne Wachau 2012 Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Kellerberg
Another close call, though in the end it was not surprising that the Chablis took this classic match – Gigas is the most common species grown in France, and they’ve been serving Chablis with their oysters there for centuries. It was a perfect match of texture and weight, harmonized mineral tastes, with the lean and stony wine gaining fruit, and the crunchy oyster gaining flesh and creaminess.
7 – Kumomoto (Crassostrea Sikamea), Netart’s Bay, Oregon, and Puget Sound, Washington State
Very small but notoriously intensely flavoured and complex oysters, often ascribed everything from honeydew to cucumber and avocado, and even nutty flavours. “I often avoid ordering them”, confessed Jamie Drummond, referring to the challenge of finding a successful wine match.
Cotat 2014 Sancerre
Forrester 2014 Chenin Blanc
Here the brilliance of this excellent Sancerre really shone through, for me (but not all), the finest Sancerre-oyster combination on the day. Complexity begs for complexity, and each met their match with this combination. Martin commented: “the sequence between the flavor profiles was seamless. It was a complete match”. Forrester’s chenin stood up well, though the kumomoto subdued all but its tropical fruit flavours, turning it into a pleasant but simple white.
Summary and Conclusions
Oysters and crisp white wines are happy partners in general – there were very few disappointing pairings. But the complex nuances of both invite more precision if you’re after a truly memorable experience. The variable texture, salinity and subtleties of flavor that arise in different species of oysters grown in varying conditions (and harvested in different seasons), has a marked impact.
Higher salinity oysters, for example, bring out more fruit in the wine, so pair with a stony, low fruit wine; already very fruity wines lose all nuance. There are many that fit this bill, like a classic muscadet, or champagne/traditional method sparkling.
Herbal-cucumber and mineral flavours (iron, copper, zinc), common in many oysters, find harmony with similar flavours in wine, hence the success of sauvignon blanc and Sancerre in particular, the wine that garnered the most votes overall.
A pinch of residual sugar in wine also works well with particularly briny-saline oysters, as with the ripe Grüner or off-dry Riesling. Indeed, the original oyster and champagne pairing came about when all champagne was made sweet.
Red wines can quickly turn bitter and rusty when up against an oyster, which is why they are traditionally avoided. But as we discovered, certain high acid, fine tannin styles can find a place. The oyster’s salinity can soften tannins (as salt in any food can), while also enhancing fruit. The Frappato in this case sought out similar earthy nuances in the oyster to positive effect. Gamay, light pinot noir, trousseau, etc.. there are several options worth investigating. Low tannins, slightly sweet new world reds would be my next line of investigation.
In the end, of course, the most fun is had by experimenting. So what are you waiting for?
That’s it for this oyster. See you over the next bottle and bivalve.