Pairing Wine with Oysters
matters of science may be cut and dry, it's good to know that matters
of the senses such as food and wine remain tolerant of
knowledge passed on through lore and fiction, as much as fact.
about eating raw oysters, sitting in their shells blue-grey,
cold, quivering. Whoever thought of eating one for the first time
surely did so on a dare. Is it any wonder, given the courage necessary,
that oysters have been defined as good for everything from bones
and brains, to appetites and sex?
doubt, the most literate description of oysters can be found in
M.F.K. Fisher's 60-page, quasi-cookbook, Consider the Oyster,
copyrighted in 1941, but as fresh as ever. In it, like a doctor
of gastronomy, Fisher prescribes very dry white wine a French
Chablis, Pouilly Fuisse, or Champagne as
the "safest" match for oysters, especially when the two
are served at the same chilly temperatures.
this wine advice was based on Fisher's practical experience "whether
they were correctly drunk or not, I was" there are no
writers or sommeliers to my knowledge who would beg to differ. The
wisdom of drinking light, puckery dry white wine with oysters is
not so much accepted as assumed like drinking water from a cup,
and eating sashimi with chopsticks.
interesting thing about Chablis, Pouilly Fuisse and Champagne is
that all these wines are made from the same grape varietal, Chardonnay
(although Champagne, as my sommelier friends would remind me, is
usually blended from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and smatterings of Pinot
Meunier). Knowing this, it might stand to reason that one could
substitute Chardonnay made from more readily available sources such
as California or Australia, but here is where logic gets screwy.
the grape growing regions of California and Australia are so much
warmer than those of France, Chardonnays from these areas generally
lack the lemony tartness and sense of lightness that make the French
wines so appropriate for oysters. By the same token, the same can
be said about most other white varietals associated with the warmer
(Southern) parts of France such as Viognier, Marsanne, and
Roussanne which tend to make lower acid, fuller alcohol wines,
less than optimal matches for the blue-grey oyster.
the other hand, white wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape no
matter where in the world it is grown tend to have a tarter
edge and lighter quality than warm climate grown Chardonnays and
Southern French whites. It is unclear why the original styles of
French Sauvignon Blanc sold by their place names, such as Sancerre
and Pouilly Fume, did not make it into Fisher's original treatise.
Neither did the simple, feathery light and lemony white wines made
from Picpoul (a grape name that literally translates as "lip
stinger"), which is probably the only white wine from
France's Mediterranean coast that makes an enduring match with oysters.
I suspect that M.F.K. drank what she liked best, which is always
the best policy anyway.
oysters are famously immobile once an oyster finds its rock,
there it remains they do have a powerful muscle that opens and
shuts its gnarly shell. Contrary to popular opinion, not all oysters
are created equal. First of all, there are several species.
Perhaps the best known oysters are those originating from the waters
off the East Coast from Nova Scotia all the way down to the
gulfstream waters from Florida to Texas that are often called
Bluepoints (although Bluepoints technically come only from New York's
Long Island). These longer shaped oysters belong to the Crassostrea
more popular today, especially in the western part of the U.S.,
are those known as Pacific oysters, belonging to Crassostrea
gigas, and cultivated in the waters off Western Canada, Washington,
Oregon and California. Also cultivated in the Pacific Northwest
are the smaller, native species called Olympia oysters, classified
as Ostrea lurida. Europeans, however, are more familiar
with flatter shelled oysters known as Belons, belonging to Ostrea
to popular opinion, not all oysters taste alike. Some are brinier,
some are creamier, some are leaner, some are fatter, and some even
have a "fruity" taste, vaguely suggestive of cucumber
and melons. Some of the differences in taste have to do with the
species, but mostly it has to do with the temperature of the waters
in which they are harvested; as well as the oyster's fabled muscle,
which constantly opens and closes to allow a flow of water and nutrients.
is in the warmest waters off the East and Gulf Coasts of the
U.S. where that muscle is most put to work. As a result of
all that exercise, American East and Gulf Coast oysters tend to
be the leanest in meatiness, and have less of that creamy, fruity
taste savored by true-blue oyster lovers. In the coldest waters
off the Western coasts of Canada and the American Northwest oysters
live a more contented life, working that muscle much less and thereby
developing a plumper, juicier, fruitier taste mingling with more
distinctively briny, flinty flavors.
the fact that I have never, ever passed up a plate of raw oysters
anytime in my adult life, I confess that it took me years to figure
out which oysters are which, and only recently have I discovered
the wonderful variations of wine that the different oysters invite.
Still, I'm more likely to order my oysters like this: "I'll
take three of the small ones, three of the skinny ones, and six
of the big, fat ones." Considering the growing number of raw
bars and seafood restaurants springing up across the country, it
would behoove any oyster lover to at least consider the flavor profiles
associated with the shapes.
own, rather unscholarly findings, but with somewhat well practiced
WINE TO PAIR WITH NORTHEAST COAST (THE "SKINNY") OYSTERS
coastal oysters tend to have a longer shaped shell, are leaner in
meatiness, yet still retain a moderately briny, salty, steely flavor,
delicious for eating raw or with no more than a squeeze of lemon
or splash of mignonette (a white wine vinegar/shallot dip). In restaurants
and markets these oysters are commonly sold by their points of origin
- such as Long Islands (the original Bluepoints), Wellfleets (from
Cape Cod), Delawares and Bristols (Maine). Similar to these are
the oysters off Eastern Canada, also sold by place names such as
"Novys" (from Nova Scotia), Malpecques (Prince Edward
Island) and Caraquets (New Brunswick).
lean, briny oysters of the Northeast, however, are not to be confused
with those of the decidedly warmer Gulf Coast (such as Florida's
Apalachicolas and Mississippi's Emerald Points), which are not just
lean, but also duller, flabbier, almost "muddy" or "swampy"
tasting a little better suited to cooking (i.e. oysters Rockefeller,
oyster po' boys, or stuffed into "carpetbagger" steaks)
than eating raw and plain.
to their lean and minerally taste, the easiest wine match for Northeastern
oysters is probably any bone dry white with perceptively minerally
or flinty qualities: ideally, the pure Sauvignon
Blancs from France's Loire River, most commonly bottled as Sancerre
or Pouilly Fume, and sometimes as Cheverny, Quincy or Menetou-Salon.
certainly acidic enough, Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand and California are not quite as ideal since they tend to be fruity in flavor, and
completely void of stony, minerally or flinty tastes. The best alternatives
to Loire River Sauvignon Blancs are the trocken ("dry")
or halbtrocken ("half dry") white wines made from
Germany's Riesling grape, which can retain a zesty, slaty-mineral flavor. At only 9%
to 11% alcohol, German Rieslings sweep across the palate like a
light, lilting, perfumey breeze, sweetening the taste of oysters
with their natural lemon-lime acidity. Among the most reliable producers
of this style found in America are Zilliken, Pfeffingen, George
Breuer, von Hovel, Robert Weil, von Buhl and Dr. Burklin-Wolf.
good choices for long and lean Northeastern oysters are Spain's
flowery and flinty dry whites made from the Albarino grape (particularly
those of Lusco, Morgadio, or Pazo de Senoran). From France, light
and crisply dry Muscadet de Sevre et Maine, as well as classic Chablis,
Macon Villages, or Pouilly Fuisse from Burgundy are also great choices.
PAIRING NORTHWEST COAST (THE "FAT") OYSTERS AND WINE
waters off the Northwest coasts of Canada and the U.S. are an oyster
lover's paradise, giving the broadest, roundest, fruitiest, fleshiest
and most creamy textured of bivalves. These variations of the Pacific
oyster are also usually sold by their place names, such as Hama
Hamas, Quilcenes, Hood Canals, Pearl Bays, Caraquets, Chef Creeks,
Sinkus and the biggest of all, Tottens (the latter, from the Totten
Inlets, literally a three or four bite oyster).
these fat styles of oysters, a fruitier, more aggressively aromatic
dry white with the requisite acidic underpinnings might be preferable.
Namely, Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand (Giesen, Nautilus, Morton,
Brancott, and Villa Maria are five favorites), Sonoma County (Murphy-Goode,
Simi, Iron Horse, Kenwood, and Chateau St. Jean), and even the partially
oak influenced styles of Napa
Valley (Robert Mondavi, Duckhorn, Spottswoode, and St. Supery), Santa
Barbara (Babcock's "Eleven Oaks"), and Monterey (Carmenet and Ventana).
excellent Northwest oyster whites: Dry white Graves from France's
Bordeaux region; dryer, chalky textured Loire River whites made
from the Chenin Blanc grape (Savennieres, Saumur Blanc, and sec
or "dry" styles of Vouvray and Montlouis); dryer style
Rieslings from Germany or Alsace; Washington St. Semillon and Fume
Blanc; moderately scaled Gruner Veltliner from Austria and German,
Oregon, or Italian Pinot Gris (the latter sold as Pinot Grigio).
BEST WINE TO SERVE WITH OLYMPIA AND KUMAMOTO
(THE "SMALL") OYSTERS
oysters are the Pacific Northwest's only native variety a different
species from the more abundant Pacific oysters and they are
small, mild, yet meaty, almost lushly flavorful. Always a treat!
there is the unique sub-species of Pacific oyster which originated
from Japan, but are now farm raised in Washington State and Northern
California: the dinky but pillowy plump, sweet, succulent, wildly
popular Kumamotos. I can't think of a better match than dry, graceful,
yeasty and crisply acidic French Champagne; although in a pinch,
any of the better California sparkling wine producers (Iron Horse,
Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg, and even Korbel) would
certainly do just fine, as would almost any good Prosecco Brut from
Italy. There's something about the pert, palate slaking effervescence
of sparkling wines that practically shouts "Kumamoto."
and Kumamotos, in turn, call for anything light, white and more
on the lemony tart than fruity style, particularly France's Picpoul
and Muscadet from the Loire; the underappreciated Vinho Verde from
Portugal; and from Italy, Gavi (made from the Cortese grape) from
Piemonte and Grechetto from Umbria.
Learn more about oysters at GAYOT.com's blog with Maitre Ecailler Christophe Happillon.
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