In celebration of the long awaited coming of spring to the Pacific Northwest, a fabulous feast for oyster and wine lovers alike was held this week at the Chart House in Portland, Oregon. We were treated to a guided journey on the art of wine and oyster pairing.
This marine taste of place brought together a panel of noteworthy experts, including Lissa James of Hama Hama Oyster Company of Hood Canal, WA and Marco Pinchot from Taylor Shellfish of Shelton, WA, presenting the oysters. A scrumptious selection of wines was presented by Giovanni Bonmartini-Fini of Barone Fini Winery of Trentino, Italy; Marco DiGiulio of The Girard Winery of Napa, CA; and Matt Mitchell of The Crossings Winery, all the way from Marlborough, New Zealand.
What variety of wine goes with oysters you ask? Why a nice dry, fruity, yet subtle, white wine of course. The wines chosen for our tasting proved to be as delightful, yet dramatic, in character as the oysters themselves and each brought out the best in the other.
Sauvignon Blanc Loves Oysters
Traditionally oysters have often been paired with Sauvignon Blanc. We were offered two fine examples hailing from California’s Napa Valley and the South Island of New Zealand. The Girard Winery of California’s Russian River Valley presented a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc featuring a citrusy, slightly fruity bouquet with lemony notes and a hint of pineapple with a long smooth finish.
This crisp Sauvignon Blanc was matched with the most popular oyster, the Kumamoto. This delicate oyster is noted for its two inch size, deep cups, green tinged pillowy look, delightfully sweet taste, and honeydew melon finish. Most Kumamotos in the Puget Sound, like the ones we sampled, are produced by Taylor Shellfish Company.
In addition to California, New Zealand has emerged as a premier location for producing Sauvignon Blanc in the “classic” style. In the Marlborough region, marked by a cool climate and featuring a long growing season and sandy soil, winemakers craft concentrated and well-balanced wines. Surprisingly, very few of the New Zealand winemakers use oak, preferring to let the grapes stand on their own. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs often show more clean fruit flavors and are slightly less minerally.
However, the similarities between these oaked and non-oaked styles are more noticeable than the differences. Cloudy Bay is the most famous representative of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but newer entries to the market, such as The Crossings Winery, often deliver remarkable taste and greater value.
The Crossings 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valley was paired with the Pacific oyster produced by Hama Hama Oyster Company. Pacific oysters typically feature a melony character that gives rise to a citrusy burst of grapefruit from the Sauvignon Blanc.
Italian Wines and Olympias
Italian wines pair well with oysters too. The Trentino/Alto Adige region of northern Italy produces a fine romance between the Barone Fini DOC Valdadige 2010 Pinot Grigio and the Olympia oyster of Totten Inlet, WA. The Olympia oyster is the only native to the West Coast and, surprisingly enough, never gets bigger than a quarter. These oysters are so tiny, it takes 250 to fill a pint jar. An “Oly” may be small, but this oyster is loaded with flavor, packing more punch than many of its larger neighbors.
When an entire species of oyster is named for a single place like the Olympia, you can expect something special. Around Olympia, these lovely little oysters are still harvested by hand at low tide. You may be surprised to learn that oysters come from seed. And just like grapes, they are planted in dirt. Small wonder wines and oysters compliment each other so well.
The Pinot Grigio wines produced by the winemakers at Barone Fini are exceptional and pair well with seafood like oysters as well as with chocolate. With more than 500 years of winemaking heritage, Barone Fini is definitely doing something right. All of their fruit is produced on old vines and hand harvested. The result is a medium- to full-bodied, delicately flavored white wine featuring light citrus notes, presenting spicy ripe apples and pears, and finishing with long tones of mountain herbs. It makes the perfect accompaniment to the Olympia oyster’s unmistakably sweet, yet-metallic, celery-salt flavor.
Chardonnay, Point aux Pins, and Pacific Oysters
Next, a lovely 2009 Chardonnay from Girard’s Russian River Valley winery was paired with a large eastern Point aux Pins oyster from the Grand Bay of Alabama. The fleshy, fat, slightly smoky, and decidedly briny oyster is nicely countered by the rich and smooth Chardonnay. The wine offers bright notes of lemon and peach with a long, delicate, citrusy finish. Girard is an ambitious winery that is characterized by premier vineyard locations that results in producing high quality wines.
New Zealand’s The Crossings 2009 Unoaked Chardonnay was also paired with a Pacific oyster, this one from Totten Inlet, WA. This large, fleshy oyster comes full of flavor with a sweet creamy texture. The deep algae-thick waters of the South Puget Sound’s Totten Inlet produce oysters with a rich seaweedy flavor. The Pacific oyster gets huge in these rich waters and many people believe the resulting oyster has the best combination of flavors. Taylor Shellfish Company is one of the largest oyster farms in Totten Inlet and is known for its meticulous quality.
The Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island is recognized throughout the world as the source of quite stunning cool climate wines. The Awatere Valley winemakers produce grapes with intense fruit flavors and a delightful mineral note. The Crossings Unoaked Chardonnay springs from an enviable set of climactic conditions and the high sunshine and moderate temperatures in 2009 made it one of The Crossings’ best seasons. This delicious Chardonnay presents nice fruity apple and peach notes against a slight mineral background and a long smooth finish that proved perfect with Taylor Shellfish’s Pacific oyster.
Pinot Grigio and Blue Pools
The Blue Pool oyster from the Hama Hama River of Washington’s Hood Canal was paired with the delightful Barone Fini Alto Adige 2010 Pinot Grigio. Blue Pool oysters are tumbled to force them to develop deeply cupped shells that result in a tiny flavorful, fleshy, and briny oyster with a refined smoky flavor. The full-bodied Pinot Grigio balances out the briny, mineral flavor of the oyster with notes of citrus followed by spicy apple and flower hints with a balanced acidity and a long smooth finish.
You can use the wines and different types of oysters we sampled as a guide for your own wine and oyster pairing. But we also encourage you to experiment. Try different types of oysters with various white wines from different producers and savor the results you get. Who knows? You may find your own perfect oyster-wine pairing. – John Morrison, RFT Contributor