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Oysters and Wine

Some thoughts on fine-tuning the match
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 28, 2011 12:21pm ET

I tried, I really did, to taste the wines and the oysters as requested, chew up the oyster to coat my palate, then take a sip of the wine, no swirling and smelling first, just wash down the oyster. The object was to find the best match, not the best wine. That raised some philosophical issues for me, but I gave it my best shot.

The first wine, as with all of them tasted blind, just shouldered past the oyster flavors, its bold melon and almond flavors filling the mouth rather than playing nice with the sweet, briny flavors of the bivalve. I liked the wine, but it wasn't a great partner for the oyster. The next wine, which reined in its peach and grapefruit flavors nicely, created a deft balance with the oyster's character. Now we're getting somewhere.

See, it's work, not just fun.

Being the bivalve lover that I am, I look forward every year to my invitation to judge the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. It involves all the Kumamotos I can consume as I sip through the 20 finalist wines deemed appropriate for the plump little treats, which is exactly what I spent an hour doing Wednesday afternoon. We 11 judges did our work at Sutro House, which conveniently overlooks the Pacific Ocean at the western edge of San Francisco.

Jon Rowley, who has been publicizing fish and shellfish for most of his professional life, organizes the event for Taylor Shellfish Farms, which grows the goodies in Totten Inlet at the southern end of Puget Sound in Washington and provides the fodder for the tastings. Rowley got 119 entries this year from wineries in California, Oregon and Washington, and a panel in Seattle narrowed the field to 20 for judges in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The cast included wine writers and other wine specialists.

Rowley likes to quote Ernest Hemingway, from A Movable Feast: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and make plans."

Consulting with restaurants in the 1980s about oyster-and-wine programs, he said he found himself recommending French wines because he could not find local wines that could defer to the oysters. "I have come to realize that it's not about the wine, it's about the next oyster," he told the judges. "The wine should exalt the next oyster by not getting in the way."

On the other hand, the prime directive, he added, is to find the wine that creates the most intense "bliss factor" when sipped with the oyster at hand. And, he wanted us to find them without smelling the wines first.

I understand the goal, which was not to let telltale aromas prejudice us for or against a particular wine type. As in, "Ooh, that smells like Sauvignon Blanc, and I love me some Sauvies with oysters." Those flavors come through on the finish anyway, only Jon's process forces us to consider them in concert with the oyster's. Fair enough.

Several of us judges, especially the wine specialists, had problems getting our heads around the idea of favoring wines that simply cleansed the palate. I want an oyster wine that does that, of course, but I also want it to bring something of its own character to the party. It's the difference between a good listener and a dinner partner that is a full participant in the conversation.

So for me, I tried to put that part of my sensory apparatus that evaluates the wine on pause until the wine's finish finally fades. Then take a taste of another oyster to test how the wine sets up the next bite, as Jon requested. With the next sip of wine, take the wine-evaluating mechanism off pause and see how the flavors and textures mesh. Of course, that requires at least two oysters per wine. Oh, what a sacrifice.

So, for example, I gave high marks to a Sauvignon Blanc that was light and refreshing, and which balanced its fresh pear and hint of citrus deftly with the oyster. And I marked down a mild Pinot Gris with a European flavor profile, more mineral and earth than fruit, even though the oyster brought out unexpected mint and applesauce flavors on the finish. If the idea was to show off the wine, this would have been great, but those flavors overpowered the oyster.

Another entrant, which fit the profile of Hemingway's oyster wine, did not make the cut into my top 10. It was clean and refreshing, and it washed down the oyster without adding much of its own character. Turns out it was a Sauvignon Blanc, but it had little of that variety's own character. A wallflower of a wine. Not my style. Forgive me, Jon.

A wine in that style that did much better with me turned out to be a dry Chenin Blanc from Washington. Its lean, clean, minerally character made a classic match in the Chablis style, and its flavors lingered together with the oyster exceptionally well.

What didn't work? Several wines had a level of sweetness that swamped the oysters' minerality. Others had flavors that, for me, clashed, especially too much earth. Ocean and land, a surf-and-turf notion that doesn't work for me with oysters. But even those were pleasant enough to drink. The preliminary judges did their work well.

I am enjoined from revealing my personal favorite until the results are released (scheduled for tomorrow), but here is what I wrote in my notes about it: "Pear, apricot, red grapefruit and blood orange mix of flavors that do not overpower the oyster. Seamless balance." Can't wait to see if the other judges agreed.

Dan Childers
Cedar Rapids, IA, USA —  April 29, 2011 6:50pm ET
As usual, Harvey's writing is both enjoyable and informative.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 2, 2011 2:00pm ET
My favorite wine match in the tasting was Cadaretta SBS 2010, a Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blend from Columbia Valley grapes. Cadaretta, based in Walla Walla, is owned by the Middleton Family. To me, the balance was perfect with the oyster, and the flavors complemented without overpowering.

The voting was very close overall, Rowley said. The other wines among my choices that also were in the final top 10 were Three Pears Pinot Grigio 2010, Robledo Family Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Brassfield Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2009 and Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc Viognier 2010, all from California.
Brad Kanipe
GA —  May 3, 2011 10:24am ET
The Pine Ridge is a perennial summer time favorite of mine and it's hard to beat the price. I'm not sure if I have paired it with oysters in the past though. How did the Viognier play off the oyster? Some vintages that component comes off a bit strong and too floral for my liking.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 3, 2011 5:40pm ET
The Viognier in this one is just a grace note.
Omaka Springs Estates
Marlborough District, New Zealand —  June 1, 2011 11:22pm ET
Thanks for the interesting & insightful article...mouthwatering now- must include some NZ Bluff Oysters in tonights dinner...cheers!

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