Search & Distill: Oyster Wine Reconsidered

It’s alright to look beyond “classic pairings” every now and then.

Even after years in the business, epiphanies sneak up on me. While plowing through three trays of Kumamotos last month as a judge for the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, I finally grasped a few things about the best wines to accompany oysters.Bone-dry, minerally whites are the usual, unimaginative default for pairing with oysters. No doubt that's what Hemingway drank in the famous passage from A Moveable Feast, which Jon Rowley read at the start of the competition, detailing how a white wine and oyster interact. Wine people are funny sometimes, and can fixate on "classic pairings," and I'm guilty of it too. But after downing dozens of whites with a pile of Kumamotos, I think the sweetness of Northwest oysters offers more leeway with dryness and fruitiness than many of us have assumed.True, a super-dry white wine with some minerality plays well off an oyster's marine aspect, but can also come off as acerbic. There are other flavors worth playing with. Think of the different ways you've seen oysters served in Seattle: with hot sauce, vinegars, granitas, or any combination thereof, maybe with minced shallots, fruit, or cucumber added. We often pair sharp, sweet, and sour flavors with oysters, to go along with their mineral stamp of the sea and also as a foil for their soft, fleshy meat. So it follows that instead of something dry, a fruity wine that feels extra tangy in your mouth can also make a nice accompaniment. The wine needs enough fruit not to come off sour against an oyster's naturally sweet flesh, especially a Kumamoto's.I learned during judging that the flavors of many Northwest whites not only agree with but sing to oysters, especially sauvignon blanc and pinot gris (grigio). Before, I would have gotten caught up in alcohol percentages and, like many wine people, thought of those varietals as too fruity and rich. Our whites also can express tangy fruit like pears and nectarines, and every side of the apple, flavors that play off a fresh Kumamoto like gangbusters. Cedergreen Cellars, 2007 sauvignon blanc amped up the mineral flavor of my third Kumamoto, with a cool, crisp pear note that matched the oyster's sweetness perfectly and a mouthfeel that worked well with a milder species. If you like rice-wine vinegar or mellow accents on your oysters, try this wine. Covey Run's 2007 pinot grigio stood out as a drier option; it hits a spot right between tart green apple and bosc pear that's white-wine nirvana for me in the spring. Its fruit and acidity played off the oyster the same way granita does, without covering the taste of the sea.Accompanying oyster #27, a particularly large and creamy beastie, the Airfield Estates 2008 Thunderbolt sauvignon blanc stood out for its simulation of an apple-citrus slaw. Slightly pithy on the palate with the flavor of ripe red apple and grapefruit, this wine's fruity character was a vivid flash backed up by a mineral streak that mimicked the residual taste of the oyster. It also had an herbaceous aroma and aftertaste that screamed "outdoors" and made the sum of the wine and oyster greater than the parts.All of the above wines placed as winners, out of hundreds of entrants, in this year's competition, held by Taylor Shellfish Farms. Covey Run should be an easy get in the grocery. For Cedergreen and Airfield Estates, check your neighborhood wine shop or try The Local Vine (2520 Second Ave.).I actually prefer drinking stout with oysters, and now I know why. Probably I'd change my tune, though, if I were sitting in a French cafe just off the Seine, as Hemingway did—because I think food and drink is nothing if not situational, and I abhor rules. As far as what wines go best with oysters, I don't want anything robbing me of one second with that oyster and its gorgeous liquor, the liquid expression of fresh sea air. Other than that, I no longer

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