Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt
Competition aims to find the ultimate oyster wine
At the start of the final round of the ninth annual Oyster Wine competition, Seattle seafood impresario Jon Rowley stood in the center of a circle of judges, each armed with 21 bright and shiny wine glasses and platters heaped with freshly-shucked oysters. He firmly laid out the rules:
• No sniffing the wine before eating the oyster!
• Oysters and wines are to be served at the same (frigid) temperature.
• Slurp your oyster, so as to get all of its juice; then sip your wine.
Score your wine solely on the strength of its affinity with the oyster.
Gentlemen (and women), start your bivalves!
Following in the footsteps of judges' panels assigned the same palate-stretching task in New York and San Francisco, yours truly and a dozen others embarked upon the annual quest for the ultimate oyster wine.
Rowley had also given us specific hints about what we were to look for. No oaky wines. No sweet wines. Certainly, no red wines (one judge timorously floated the notion that a dry rosé might serve, but it was met with a barely raised Rowlian eyebrow. We quickly moved on.) Clean, crisp, high-acid, bone-dry white wines constituted the 21 finalists, culled from an opening field of 122 West Coast entries. "If the wine finishes clean," noted Rowley, "then you are fresh for the next oyster, and the next, and the next, and the next ... "
And so it went. Slurp. Chew. Sip. Swoozle. Spit. No talking! The oysters, small, perfect Kumamotos, slid easily down. The wines, ice-cold, bagged and poured blind in groups of five, followed shortly after, as the judges went gamely about their appointed task.
What is it with oyster wines? The whole idea that weeks of effort, thousands of oysters and hundreds of wines could be invested in pursuit of a short list of the right wines to drink with your favorite mollusk seems absurd on the face of it. And yet, there is something compelling about this particular quest. Wines and oysters are not a natural match. There are textural conflicts, collisions of flavor, and the oyster's innate penchant for bringing out the worst, not the best, in many wines. It's a challenge that particularly appeals to the jaded palates of foodies, sommeliers and wine writers, who love nothing more than a flavor quest.
When the right wine meets the right oyster, a little window on heaven opens in your mouth. The wine's crispness cleanses and refreshes. The oyster's briny tang weaves around the citrus and stone flavors of the grape; they do a little dance together that is both bracing and embracing.
And when the winners are announced, somebody sells a lot of fairly tart, lemony white wine.
This year, after all the votes by all the judges in all three cities were totaled, Rowley announced a list of 11 winners (a tie for 10th place made it necessary to add an 11th wine to the winners' circle). Five of the wines were repeat winners from previous years, which at least suggests that there is some consistency in the voting.
Among the winners this year were four pinot gris/grigios, five sauvignon blancs, a dry chenin and a lone chardonnay — six from California, four from Washington, one from Oregon. My personal top three wines, I was surprised to find, were all pinot gris. My list included five California, four Washington and an Oregon entry. Six of my 10 winners matched up with the group's top picks.
Here are the wines I liked best with the oysters, in order of preference:
1. La Famiglia de Robert Mondavi 2001 Pinot Grigio (California); $12. A terrific wine, with or without the oysters. Fresh, racy and long, it showed persistent spice and mineral flavors and had a very nice way with a bivalve. A group winner also.
2. Pepi 2001 Pinot Gris (Oregon); $10. Again, I liked the spicy, fresh, lemony flavor of the wine, and the way it wrapped itself around the briny oyster.
3. Chateau Ste. Michelle 2002 Pinot Gris (Washington); $11. Like a number of the other winners, this has a pleasant, beery quality. A group winner also.
4. Geyser Peak Winery 2002 Sauvignon blanc (California); $10. A repeat winner, this is a yeasty, assertive wine which nicely cuts through the salty juices.
5. Parducci Wine Cellars 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (California); $7. Round, richly fruity, with some tropical flavors, but no hint of sugar. A group winner also.
6. Maryhill 2001 Sauvignon Blanc (Washington); $10. A winner last year, it didn't make the group's list this time around, but I liked its ripe fruit well enough to rank it sixth.
7. Cakebread Cellars 2001 Sauvignon Blanc (California); $22. An excellent wine, with light tropical fruit. I forgave its hint of sweetness and ranked it seventh; the other judges were less charitable.
8. Snoqualmie Winery 2001 Sauvignon Blanc (Washington); $5.50. Bracing and slightly nutty, this was a good match with the salty punch of the oyster. A group winner also.
9. Buena Vista 2001 Sauvignon Blanc (California); $8. A group winner last year, not this, though I very much liked its pleasing grapefruit flavor. A slight touch of oak may have turned some judges away.
10. Columbia Winery 2001 Pinot Gris (Washington); $10. Solid, mixing flavors of apple, melon and pear. A group winner also.
Not included in my list were five wines that made the official winners' circle:
• Oak Knoll Winery 2001 Pinot Gris (Oregon)
• Canyon Road Winery 2002 Sauvignon Blanc (California)
• Columbia Crest 2000 Sauvignon Blanc (Washington)
• Dry Creek Vineyard 2002 Dry Chenin Blanc (California)
• Martin & Weyrich Winery 2001 Huerhueno Chardonnay (California)
So, what are we to conclude from all of this? Clearly, oysters are sensitive little things; you don't want the wine to step on their tiny little toes. Rowley is quite right when he advises eschewing oak, high alcohol and sugar. Oysters amplify even a hint of oak or sweetness, and the flavor mix can quickly turn ugly.
The wines that really stood out for me were the pinot gris/grigios, which all managed to convey something extra besides just citrus and acid. The problem I find with many suitable oyster wines is that they either taste like fresh-squeezed lemons or like beer.
There is nothing wrong, and in fact there is everything right, about complementing your fresh oyster with a splash of fresh lemon. But for that, all you need is a lemon, not a corkscrew. In the same vein, several of the wines that made the finals tasted a lot like beer. If the wine can't bring something extra to the party, you might just as well go with a brewski, don't you think?
Next year, I would love to see more wineries from British Columbia entering the competition. Such gems as Burrowing Owl's bracing pinot gris, Gray Monk's Odyssey, Quails' Gate's zippy Family Reserve riesling or Limited Release gewürztraminer, and Blue Mountain's glorious pinot blanc ought to do quite well in an oyster-thon.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section.