By Rebecca Meïr-Liebman of Chef & Somm
Photos by Signe Langford
Oenophiles have always understood the concept of terroir; food- lovers are grasping this taste of place, too.Ingredients are just as terroir-driven as wine, sometimes the connection to the soil, sun, and air is even more pronounced in a cheese or a cacao bean than in a particular wine!
And, what if that taste of place –or terroir– is underwater? Well, until I met with Patrick McMurray, author, oyster expert and shucking champion, I was unaware of how much terroir- or, rather, merroir-driven these beautiful bivalves are.
Joining him at his east end Toronto Irish pub, Ceili Cottage, he started by showing me the correct way to taste an oyster. We’re not sure who decided oysters should be swallowed whole and fast, but we suspect they weren’t oyster lovers. To really appreciate the subtle and delightful flavours a few chews are needed.
Next, draw in a little air, which allows the flavours to develop fully on the palate. Then swallow. See, just like tasting a great wine!
McMurray’s love for oysters and merroir is clear and contagious, “No other food has so much of its environment captured in it. Everything that is in the air and water is captured in the oyster for 5 years; it’s a snap shot in time.”
One of the most disheartening things McMurray faces are folks who automatically drown their oysters in mignonette, or even worse, hot sauce. “Try it the way Mother Nature intended,” says McMurray, “on its own; don’t ruin the delicate flavours of the oyster.”
Armed with my newfound appreciation for this plentiful delicacy, I decided to put oyster and wine pairings to the test. True, sparkling wine will work with most species of oyster, but then, you knew that already, didn’t you?
To make this challenge interesting, I opened six wines – a Sancerre, an off dry Niagara Riesling, a Late Harvest Riesling, a Shiraz, a Merlot and a Gamay – while McMurray shucked five different types of oyster from around the world.
Now, keep in mind, oysters are affected by temperature and season, so, the same oyster may taste and feel different at various times of the year, and therefore, the pairing will have to be adjusted accordingly. But, sitting on McMurray’s lovely patio in springtime, here’s what I discovered…
Green Gables oysters, Prince Edward Island, Canada – Small oysters with moderate salinity, perfectly balanced, with a delicate slightly sweet finish. Thanks to its sweetness it works beautifully with a nicely chilled off dry Riesling. Try it with Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling ($35.20)
Ruisseau oysters, Nova Scotia, Canada – An average sized oyster with low salinity, and a meaty texture. Since this oyster shares similar meaty, animal characteristics with Gamay, they complement each other very well. It’s great also with Sancerre, thanks to the Ruisseau oyster’s clean, ivory flesh. Malivoire Gamay ($15.95) is my preferred choice here, but to shake things up a bit, go red: Adamo Estate Winery Gamay Reserve. Buy directly from the winery ($28.65)
Hummock Oysters, Connecticut shore, USA – Medium in size with a mild to moderately strong flavour, this oyster can hold its own against an oak-aged Chardonnay; interestingly, it was awful with Riesling! Pair with Buehler Vineyards, Russian River Valley Chardonnay. Rogers & Co. Wines ($34.95)
Jersey Rock Oysters, UK – These British bivalves boast fresh sea air on the nose, brine on the palate, and a crisp texture. The salty flavours call for wine with lots of sweetness and fruitiness; off dry riesling just isn’t sweet enough. A late harvest riesling is the perfect match. Try it with an icy bottle of Cave Spring Indian Summer Late Harvest Riesling ($24.95)
West Mersea Oysters, UK – Very briny on the nose, robust and complex on the palate, with nutty, buttery notes, and a medium sweet finish; the texture is meaty and firm. Surprisingly, none of the white wines I poured worked with this oyster, even the gamay noir wasn’t big enough for this bruiser!
In the end, it was Oz to the rescue, with a bold shiraz, perfect for taming the bossy flavours. Bonus: the oyster enhanced the taste of the wine; bringing out all the wines’ fruitiness and leaving any harsh tannins behind. Do try this at home, either go for the Australian, or give an Ontario red a go: Rosewood Estates Merlot ($21.95)
Sommelier & Consultant
As co-owner of Chef & Somm, the GTA’s only Bespoke Private Dining and Sommelier service, Rebecca has acquired over a decade of experience in some of Canada’s – and the world’s – top dining rooms.
She earned her hospitality, service and sommelier skills at top restaurants – Canoe, Luma, BLÜ Ristorante and Maple Leafs Sport & Entertainment – but Rebecca is always learning, tasting, and cultivating relationships with winemakers, local and abroad.
Her thirst for wine knowledge is a never-ending quest; Rebecca brings an unquenchable curiosity and authority to any dining experience. www.ChefSomm.ca