On the Hunt for Oyster Wines
BY ASHLEY GARTLAND
A dozen Pacific Northwest oysters, served icy cold on a platter of shaved ice, hold the promise of an enlivening dining experience. Yet that very same platter represents a tough task for local wine connoisseurs and sommeliers, for those plump little oysters are notoriously difficult to pair with wine.
A narrow selection of wine varietals and styles play well with Washington’s oysters, whose vibrant flavor profile encompasses sweet, delicate notes, a mineral quality, and a finish that tastes of the sea. For many years, Seattle sommeliers solved this pairing challenge by matching local oysters with trusted French wines like Muscadet or Chablis. They had little reason to look elsewhere for oyster wines: French varietals refreshed the palate between oysters without getting in the way of the bivalve’s briny appeal.
But not everyone believed French wines were king. While working as a restaurant consultant in the late 1980s, Jon Rowley mused that winemakers outside of France might be producing outstanding oyster wines, and decided to start searching for options in his own backyard. The question, he says, was figuring out how to find them.
Rowley posed that question to a group of restaurant and wine industry veterans and then asked them to nominate their favorite oyster wines. The group gathered to taste each handpicked wine with an oyster before narrowing their collaborative list down to the top wines. In doing so, they helped Rowley find locally-sourced pairings and established the roots of the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition.
The annual competition has since become a regional matchmaking service for our best oysters and wines. Today, nearly 200 West Coast wineries submit wine for judging each year in hopes of earning an “Oyster Award.” When the competition begins in March, a group of privileged oyster enthusiasts convene in Seattle for a week’s worth of oyster eating and imbibing, paring the submissions down to 20 semi-finalists. In April, panels of judges in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle meet to rate these semi-finalists and determine which 10 wines will make the final cut.
The results of the competition are sometimes predicable, occasionally surprising and always beneficial for local oyster lovers and wine aficionados who can use the winners list to locate excellent oyster wines. The event also educates the tastemakers who serve as competition judges and who work in local restaurants and wine shops.
Judges quickly learn that overly oaky, sweet or highly aromatic wines dominate the delicate flavor of local oysters. “If you lose the flavor of the oysters, it makes it all for naught,” says judge and Elliott’s Oyster House General Manager Tom Arthur. Nor are reds good picks, because their tannins scratch and claw at the oysters in your mouth, says Rowley.
The competition proves time and time again that oysters pair best with crisp, bone dry whites that won’t overshadow their briny flavor and succulent texture. Varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris tend to dominate the winner’s list, though occasionally a Müller-Thurgau, Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay will wow the panel and earn a coveted award as well. “The traditional oyster wine is muscadet,” says judge and Flying Fish’s manager Claire Hansen. “What is great, since you don’t get those French varietals here, is that we have Northwest Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc as options.”
Whatever the varietal, the winners always have one characteristic in common: the “bliss factor,” or what Rowley defines as a wine’s affinity for oysters. It’s the only criteria judges use to select the winners and it reminds the panel that the competition is about the oysters above all else. “The competition isn’t about the wine—it’s about how the wines go with oysters,” says Hansen. “When Jon talks about the bliss factor, it means you eat the oyster and taste the wine and see how they go together.”
When judges taste a wine that delivers the bliss factor, they’ll know it, says Rowley. They are among the rare wines that make enthusiasts want to eat another oyster, take another sip of wine and repeat the experience again and again
Related: Oyster Wine Winners 2011
Sidebar: Wineries Worth Watching
Ashley Gartland is a Portland-based freelance food writer and recipe developer who has written for MIX, Saveur and Tastingtable.com. She is currently working on a farm-to-table cookbook titled Dishing Up Oregon. To read more of her work, visit www.ashleygartland.com.