A Cultivated Taste, Oysters and Wine
By Tom McDermott
The oyster has quite the life. Wild or cultivated oysters bathe in cool-to-cold brackish waters around bays and near the mouths of rivers where they have a steady diet of nutrient rich algae and tiny plankton. In return for their daily sustenance they filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day through their bivalve system. Their shells come in many shapes and sizes; they can grow plump and creamy, or small and delicate. As the epicure Waverly Root says, “They are what they eat.”
It happens that I’ve been considering oysters lately while attending a rash of weddings and preparing myself for the raw bars at upcoming holiday parties. This leads to the question of what is best to drink with oysters, Little Neck clams, and other shellfish, but especially oysters. Luckily, the best way to answer that question was to eat some oysters and taste some wines.
First, some basic ground rules: To my mind there are two ways to eat raw oysters, right from the shell, or with some mignonette – a mixture of red wine or rice vinegar, shallots, and spices. Some mignonette relies on sugar to balance the tart vinegar, while others, the one served at Saltaire Oyster Bar & Fish House in Port Chester for example, relies more on pepper. Still others use more salt. Consequently, the choice of drink is somewhat related to the mignonette. As for raw from the shell: the drier and colder the drink, the better.
Some may wonder why I have not mentioned using lemon juice or “cocktail” sauce on oysters. A purely personal opinion is that when we mix mild flavored food with a lemon, we get a lemon, and that cocktail sauce should be used only on cold, boiled shrimp. That said, most of the drinks mentioned here will compliment your lemony oysters nicely. None of them match well with the red sauce. As for Tabasco and horseradish, the lemon “law” applies — too much of either may overwhelm the taste of the oysters.
On a recent visit to Saltaire, I happily consumed a dozen oysters, mostly from New England: salty Quonnie Rocks and Ninigrets from Rhode Island; meaty, creamy Taunton Bays and minerally Glidden Points from Maine. I also enjoyed small Shigokus from Washington. To drink, I chose a classic cold, dry well-balanced Loire Valley Muscadet.
A great way to ease yourself into oyster eating (and wine drinking) is to drop by Saltaire on a Wine & Brine evening Monday to Friday 4-6:30, except Thursday which is all day and night. Oysters are $1.25 and clams $1 per piece. Master shucker Manny Perez and his colleague Pierre will set you up with oysters provided by Norm Bloom & Sons.
An equally great introduction and oyster bargain awaits at Morgans Fish House on Tuesdays where Buck-a-Shuck ($1 each) Bluepoints are served. Morgans wine list provides Sancerre and other sauvignon blanc choices, as well as Chablis, and Grüner Veltliner.
It may surprise you to discover that Norm Bloom’s Copps Island Oysters primarily come from the nearby waters near islands by Norwalk and Westport. Saltaire’s Les Barnes has been buying from Bloom for 40 years. Barnes recommends drinking Chablis, Sancerre, or Muscadet with oysters, but adds Verdejo from Spain also works well with all 12 varieties of oysters usually on hand.
Cai Palmer of Wine at Five also recommends Chablis and Muscadet, as well as a Sancerre and champagne, all available at his shop (all wines listed on page B6) . True to form Cai and his staff did some thinking out of the box, suggesting that Cava and Fino Sherry, both from Spain, also compliment oysters and clams well. “What you get from Chablis, notes Palmer, “is classic style with a tangy edge. Muscadet has a lot of minerality. Fino is mind-blowingly complex. If you’ve never tried dry sherry with Oysters, I implore you to do so.” Aye, aye, Captain.
Doug Kooluris at G. Griffin Wine & Spirits agreed on the cava idea but added an unusual “pick” of his own, Picpoul from southern France’s Languedoc region. Picpoul has verve and is reminiscent of the dry white Vino Verde from Portugal. “In that area and Provence, they’re not making jammy wines to accompany their foods,” said Kooluris, who spent a decade at the restaurant Manhattan Ocean Club.
Not to be outdone, the guys at Harrison Wine Vault also had two unusual suggestions: an Apremont from the Savoie region, whose white wines are still seriously under-appreciated by Americans, and…wait for it…an Austrian Grüner Veltliner. The latter is also available by the bottle at Ruby’s Oyster Bar.
What about beer with oysters? Unless you’re eating them grilled or baked, stick with a very light Pilsner. A secret source told me, “Drink a really, really cold Coors Banquet. Period.”
Oysters, once very scarce due to over-harvesting, neglect, and fouled waters, have made a comeback over the last decade from Tomales Bay in the west to Coastal Maine and New Brunswick. Once, they thrived in local waters around Rye. Hopefully, one day the Billion-Oyster Project will have an impact here, and we will be quaffing Fino, Cava, and Poningo Pilsner along with our “Blind Brooks” and “Scotch Caps”.
Cheers to that.
<<Saltaire Oyster Bar & Fish House>>
2016 Domaine Du Fief Aux Dames Muscadet
2016 Domaine De Menard Sauvignon Blanc
Both $7 per glass during Wine & Brine/Happy Hour.