The Great Canadian Oyster and VQA Ontario Wine Pairing

by John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Last year around this time I wrote up a piece on oyster and wine pairing, fruit of a panel tasting convened to revisit the traditional classic wine matches with oysters such as Champagne, Sancerre, Muscadet, Chablis, and similar. As oyster fans know, late November-December is when oysters (from the northern hemisphere) are at their absolute peak of flavour, plump and fleshy, as they fatten up for winter. It was an enjoyable, even informative exercise, “often comforting, occasionally shocking, rarely disappointing”, as I wrote.

Well, it’s that time of year again, and both east and west coast varieties are at their zenith of perfection. It wasn’t a hard decision to repeat the investigation. But this year the idea was to toss aside the old classics – there’s nothing ground breaking to report there – and shine the spotlight on potential future classic oyster wines.

As has been known for centuries, the best matches for oysters fall into a relatively narrow band of wine style: crisp, dry white wine, with or without bubbles. And as many know, Ontario excels at that style. Our climate, cool by anyone’s standards, and the range of grapes that perform best, such as riesling, chardonnay and the pinot family, lend themselves perfectly to producing oyster friendly wines.


So the focus became home grown VQA Ontario wines. And while we’re at it I thought, let’s make it all Canadian oysters, too, east and west, since our oyster growers, like our winegrowers, are as good as any around the world.

Another crack brain trust of self-declared oyster lovers was convened to test out the pairings, drawn from the food and wine worlds to balance perspectives. And in a final moment of inspiration, I hit upon the magnificent idea of sharing the results in a visceral, touchy-feely way: organizing the first annual Great Canadian Oyster and Wine Experience. On November 28th, 100 guests met at legendary oysterman Rodney Clark’s Oyster House for an evening of top VQA Ontario wines, many medal winners at the WineAlign National Wine Awards, and copious oysters, including an audience’s choice ballot for the best of the best oyster and wine pairings. Don’t despair if you missed this year’s event, we’ll be back next year so mark late November 2017 in your calendar.


Read on to see which VQA Ontario wines match best with molluscs. At the very least, it’s an excellent line up of local wines with which to stuff stockings or slake midwinter thirst. Or better yet, host your own oyster and wine pairing party: call Rodney’s to cater the oysters listed below and track down the top wines. Match palates with the experts!

The Venue: Rodney’s Oyster House, 469 King St. West, Toronto

Once again the oyster partner for this year’s important oral convergence of terroir and merroir was Rodney Clark, 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. Treat yourself to an afternoon/evening of oysters soon at this oyster paradise. 

Rodney Clark

Rodney Clark

The Panellists: 

Jamie Drummond, Director of Programs/Senior Editor at Good Food Media. Jamie, one of Toronto’s best-known faces in the wine world, and best-known accents (he’s from Edinburgh, Scotland), joined the panel for a second year. 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.

Jamie Drummond

Jamie Drummond

Valerie Howes, freelance writer, author. Keeping Jamie Drummond’s accent company, Scottish-born Howes has written culinary travel, design, and profile stories for a long list of high profile publications. If I were paid by the word, I would list them all. But a sampling includes the Globe & Mail, National Post, enRoute, Toronto Star, Toronto Life, the Guardian, and WestJet. She has worked on major projects for Google, Food Network, CBC, VIA Rail and the National Film Board of Canada, and in a direct link to the task at hand, recently co-authored a book about sustainable Pacific Coast seafood, with Ocean Wise chef ambassador, Ned Bell, (release date: Fall 2017). You can also catch her on her award-winning blog, Open Kitchen.

Valerie Howes

Valerie Howes

Carl Heinrich, chef, Richmond Station. Vancouver Island native Carl was our west coast voice. Carl’s kitchen fairytale starts at 13, when he worked as a dishwasher for his uncle. He hasn’t left the kitchen since. A Stratford Chef’s School graduate, Carl later worked his way through New York, France and Vancouver before ending up in Toronto. Stage highlights include the Sooke Harbour House, Camille’s West Coast Fine Dining, Gramercy Tavern, db Bistro Moderne, Le Comptoir, Georges Blanc and Le Louis XV. Working under many talented chefs no doubt helped Carl earn the title of the Food Network’s “Top Chef Canada” in 2012. But fancy dishes are not his MO at Toronto’s beloved Richmond Station, preferring to make food that “his mom would like to eat”. Lucky mom.

Carl Heinrich

Carl Heinrich

Suresh Doss, founder, Editor, Foodism Toronto magazine. Sri Lankan native Doss has been captivated by sight, smell and taste since he was a young boy wandering the streets and laneways of Columbo, distracted by market stalls and food vendors on his way to school. Needless to say, he would not have had the same experience growing up in the suburban GTA. In a nod back to this formative experience, Doss founded Food Truck Eats a half dozen years ago, the country’s inaugural food truck festival, and has been a tireless promoter of the street food movement in the hopes that his grandkids might have the same experience he had. He writes regularly and widely about food and drink, and travels extensively, documenting his finds in both words and images.

Suresh Doss

Suresh Doss

Dick Snyder, founder, CityBites Magazine, freelance writer, and editor/creative-director-at-large. Snyder has been a leading voice on the Canadian culinary scene for longer than he’d care to remember. He founded Toronto’s most revered foodie/drinkie rag, CityBites, back in 2005; I fondly remember his merciless edits on my overly plump contributions. CityBites will soon re-launch as Snyder’s personal window on the food/drink world, so stay tuned. He’s just one small step shy of earning the prestigious Wine & Spirits Education Trust Diploma, bringing deep beverage knowledge into the fold of his vast edibles experience. Wine lovers will appreciate Kwäf, a wine club co-founded by Snyder in 2014.

Dick Snyder

Dick Snyder

Magdalena Kaiser, Director of PR, Wine Marketing Association of Ontario. Joining us again this year, Kaiser, daughter of Canadian wine pioneer and Inniskillin co-founder Karl Kaiser, 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. She’s also a bona fide oyster fanatic; when Kaiser’s in the room, oysters know the end is nigh.

Magdalena Kaiser

Magdalena Kaiser

Julius Chapple, Front Of House manager, Rodney’s Oyster House. Chapple was our chief shucker and inside man, with the buds most finely tuned to bivalves. Since almost one million oysters were shucked at Rodney’s last year, no one has more regular exposure. If oysters were radioactive, a glowing Chapple would be visible from outer space.

Julius Chapple

Julius Chapple

Chief Panellist: John Szabo, MS, partner/principal critic, Somebody has to keep the train on the rails.

Guest Panellist: Martin Malivoire, proprietor, Malivoire Wines. Talk about right place, right time. Malivoire opted to hand deliver his wines for the tasting at Rodney’s, arriving as we were about to begin, and the rules of hospitality dictate sharing. Now to be fair, Malivoire’s love of the oyster is legend. He even created a wine made from Muscadet’s melon variety here in Ontario for the sole purpose of washing back oysters, and he’s been known to fly to France just for a few dozen Belons. He delivered a pre-tasting pep talk on the intricacies of east vs. west coast oysters and his contributions were invaluable. Yet as a winery owner supplying wines, his results couldn’t be officially registered. We take this very seriously.

Guest judge - Martin Malivoire

Guest judge – Martin Malivoire

Tasting Protocol

Here’s how it went down. I pre-selected a couple dozen VQA wines, a short list of some of the best local wines I tasted this year, covering a range of styles and grapes, which, at least on paper, should have made for suitable oyster companions. There were plenty of bubbles, dry and off-dry rieslings, crisp and steely, minimally oaked chardonnay and the like, all between $20 and $40. Each panellist was assigned one type of oyster, and given time to taste through the wine options, each selecting his or her top ten wines with which to work.


The panellists then tasted their chosen wines with their assigned oyster, and picked the best pairing out of the ten possibilities. The “best” is of course open to interpretation, but judges were instructed to experience the wine and oysters together, having a sip of wine before swallowing the oyster to allow the flavours, tastes and textures of both to comingle. The most successful matches were the ones that made both wine and oyster taste “better”, such as enhancing the fruit character of a very steely/mineral wine, or magnifying the intrinsic flavours of the oyster such as cucumber or kelp, as though its character were dialed to eleven.

The eight panellists then came together to taste each of the winning pairings, and collectively declare the top two pairings, which were then served at the Great Canadian Oyster and VQA Wine Experience.

Bonus material: Oysters 101: East Coast vs. West Coast?

Only three main species of oysters are grown in North America (out of 5 in the world). But as with wine, the merroir (terroir of the sea) makes all of the difference and results in subtle, and occasionally wide variation in flavour and texture. Think of chardonnay grown in Chablis vs. the Napa Valley. Water temperature, nutrient availability and composition, oyster age and growing/harvesting methods all affect the final results. This is the reason why oysters, like old world wines, are named after their region of origin.


But some generalities can be drawn. Virginica is the only native species to the Atlantic eastern seaboard. In general, east coast/Virginica oysters are medium-large sized with smooth, rounded shells and relatively shallow cups. They are notably more briny/saline, minerally and iodine-tinged than west coast oysters, but more delicate and subtle in flavour. Equally subtle, minerally, crisp whites are the best options, like Blanc de Blancs sparkling, light, unoaked chardonnay (i.e. Chablis) or light, dry riesling or sauvignon blanc (Loire Valley style).

West Coast oysters, on the other hand, of the Olympia species (the only B.C. native) and the introduced Pacific or Gigas species, are smaller but mightier in flavour. Shells are frilled/ridged with deep cups, and the oysters more creamy, plump and meaty, with marked melon-cucumber and grass/seaweed flavours. They are more of an acquired taste, and are best paired with more intensely flavoured wines, such as mature, vintage champagne/sparkling or slightly richer styles of riesling or chardonnay.

Panel Results

Here is each panellists’ top wine pairing with their assigned oyster:

East Coast

Lameque Cocktail – Baie de Chaleur, New Brunswick, paired by guest panellist Martin Malivoire. Malivoire’s oyster description: “slightly briny, thin meat, mild flavoured, grassy, iodine finish with delicate shrimp note”.

-Top Wine: Malivoire 2016 Melon, VQA Beamsville Bench.

LamequeMalivoire Melon 2016

Rodney’s Oyster Depot ‘Dukes’ – Nine Mile Creek, Prince Edward Island, paired by Dick Snyder. Snyder’s oyster description: “crunchy but mild, with ocean spray, cucumber, delicate citrus and lovely minerality”.

-Top Wine: Norman Hardie 2014 “Cuvée de Roche”, VQA Ontario.

Rodney's Oyster Depot ‘Dukes’Norman Hardie Cuvée De Roche 2014

Macintosh Medium – Merigomish, Nova Scotia, paired by Magdalena Kaiser. Kaiser’s oyster description: “medium size, tender but firm, with elegant liquor kissed by the salt of the ocean”.

-Top Wine: Huff 2015 Pinot Gris, VQA Prince Edward County.

MacintoshHuff Estates Pinot Gris 2015

Village Bay Large – Richibucto, New Brunswick, paired by Julius Chapple. Chapple’s oyster description: “soft and creamy, with bull kelp flavour”.

-Top Wine: Hidden Bench 2014 Roman’s Block Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench.

Village BayHidden Bench Roman's Block Riesling 2014

Malpeque Premium – Malpeque Bay Prince Edward Island, paired by Valerie Howes. Howe’s oyster description: “small, sweet, briny and firm, a classic east coast oyster”.

-Top Wine: Cave Spring 2014 CSV Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench

Malpeque PremiumsCave Spring CSV Riesling 2014

La Verte Small Choice – Shippagan, New Brunswick, paired by John Szabo. Szabo’s oyster description: “medium size, moderately meaty, mild and delicate, very subtle east coast oyster”.

-Top Wine: Trius NV Brut, VQA Niagara Peninsula.

Shippigan La VerteTrius Brut

West Coast

Kusshi – Vancouver Island, British Columbia, paired by Suresh Doss. Doss’s oyster description: “deep cups (that slurp), so creamy and meaty; finishes slightly grainy and sweet”.

-Top Wine: Thirty Bench 2014 Small Lot Riesling ‘Steel Post’, VQA Beamsville Bench.

KusshiThirty Bench Small Lot Riesling Steel Post Vineyard 2014

Marina’s Top Drawer – Cortes Island, British Columbia, paired by Carl Heinrich. Heinrich’s oyster description: “small, firm texture, very mineral, long, strong green melon finish”.

-Top Wine: Malivoire NV Bisous Brut Nature, VQA Beamsville Bench.

Marinas Top Drawer-6340Malivoire Bisous Brut

Beach Angels – Cortes Island, British Columbia, paired by Jamie Drummond. Drummond’s oyster description: “small, deep cup, lots of liquor, chewy-firm texture, cucumber-grass flavours, chalky, iodine finish”.

-Top Wine: Malivoire NV Bisous Brut Nature, VQA Beamsville Bench.

Beach AngelMalivoire Bisous Brut

Top Two Pairings Overall

And the top two pairings, as voted on by all panellists, were:

  1. Malpeque Premium – Malpeque Bay, Prince Edward Island with Cave Spring 2014 CSV Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench. In this match there was perfect balance between sweetness and minerality in both wine and oyster, together the texture turned amazingly creamy in the mouth.
  1. Marina’s Top Drawer – Cortes Island, British Columbia, with Malivoire NV Bisous Brut Nature, VQA Beamsville Bench. In this match the strong west coast oyster flavour profile brought out more fruit character in the steely, bone dry (zero dosage) sparkling wine, rendering it softer and creamier. 39 months on the lees also conferred sufficient biscuity intensity to the wine to balance the intense oyster flavour.

People’s Choice Awards

Three pairings were presented at the Great Canadian Oyster and VQA Ontario Wine Experience and voted upon by guests, including the two winning pairings above and a third pairing inserted by yours truly at the 11th hour: Rodney’s Oyster Depot ‘Dukes’ – Nine Mile Creek, Prince Edward Island, with the Thomas Bachelder 2013 Chardonnay Wismer Wingfield #1, VQA Twenty Mile Bench.

And the winner was… :

Rodney’s Oyster Depot ‘Dukes’ – Nine Mile Creek, Prince Edward Island, with the Thomas Bachelder 2013 Chardonnay Wismer Wingfield #1, VQA Twenty Mile Bench.

Rodney's Oyster Depot Duke-6341Bachelder Wismer Wingfield No 1 Chardonnay 2013

The audience selected this pairing by a wide margin, commenting on the lovely creamy texture that developed from the pairing, and the surprise that a wood aged wine could pair so beautifully. Barrel fermented/aged wines are rarely the best option with oyster, but in this case, the parcel selection made by Bachelder and the light handling in the cellar resulted in a very subtle, firm, tight and highly mineral wines with minimal wood influence, one of the best wines yet from Bachelder (which is why I wanted to include it). With the Dukes it was seamless harmony.

That’s all for this special report on Great Canadian oysters and VQA Ontario Wine. See you next November for the next showcase.


John Szabo, MS