The adage of only eating oysters and other shellfish in months containing the letter “r” is centuries old and, thus, from before refrigeration probably had significant value.
The hotter months — May, June, July and August — have no “r” in their spelling and food would spoil much quicker then. Today, with proper refrigeration and microbiologic understanding, along with the commercial farming of 95 percent of oysters, this year-round offering is safe and delicious.
Commercially farming fish can create a host of negative issues not found in line or net-caught wild fish. But commercially farmed oysters actually create a cleaner, safer oyster, with more dependable taste and texture and a certain environmental friendliness as no ocean-floor dredging is necessary. Oysters filter and clean their water environment and will absorb some of the local water flavors that will affect the taste. “Terroir” is the wine word used to describe that certain something that soil type, wind, weather, altitude and orientation of the vineyard will impart to the grape, affecting the flavor and maybe the texture of a wine. “Merroir” is a newly coined word to describe a region’s effect on oysters and their flavors, which is profound.
In the United States, East Coast oysters tend to have a high salinity, a brininess and freshness that will transport you, if only briefly, to the seashore. West Coast oysters tend to have more of a cucumber flavor — fresh, lively and sweet. I have been to massive oyster farming operations in the Languedoc region in the south of France. In a protected bay area adjacent to AOC Picpoul de Pinet wine region, oyster farmers have installed scaffolding with lines on which to “plant” or attach baby oysters known as spats, which will grow into millions of oysters. The farmers have installed solar motors to lower the lines covered with oysters slowly into and out of the bay twice a day to mimic the tides. This system allows for oyster flavors as nature intended.
The first time I tried oysters on the half-shell was many years ago and the friends I was dining with slathered each oyster with so much cocktail sauce, the essence of the oyster was lost. Since then I have tasted them with several oyster “sommeliers,” who know some truths about oysters. Of course, they can put flavor descriptives to myriad oyster-producing regions. And each likes little or no additives or flavor enhancements. I met Julie Qiu, an oyster expert, at an over-the-top Taittinger Champagne celebration in Manhattan recently and she told me, “I like to eat my oysters naked.” Of course, I knew what she meant but the imagery was fun. And I tasted several varieties of oysters with her explaining the flavorful differences while we sipped Taittinger’s Champagne.
So what wine would you pair with oysters? Any crisp and acidic white wine would enhance the experience. I might choose a bubbly wine like the newly created and released Louis Pommery sparkling wine from California. The Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc has a bracing lemony acidity that gives flavor and perspective to the oyster. (It’s by Kim and Erica Crawford, who sold New Zealand’s Kim Crawford winery to a bigger operation and moved on to create Loveblock, a boutique and better version of New Zealand wines.)
When I interviewed Guy Bascou, president of Picpoul de Pinet, he told me, “There is no wine that goes with oysters better than Picpoul de Pinet. Most wines slide underneath the oyster. Picpoul de Pinet will rise up and go over the oyster, enveloping it with acidic freshness.” I’m still not sure what he meant by that but he said it with passionate conviction.
Brancott Estate of Marlborough, New Zealand, also makes a few Sauvignon Blancs in different price ranges that all will enhance the oyster experience. And you wouldn’t go wrong with a Chenin Blanc or a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley. Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, gently oaked Chardonnay, virtually any dry and crisp white wine or Rosé will bring you to a happy place.
With the oysters or not.
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