Minneapolis City Pages — 2012 Wine & Dine Guide
Change Language:
Oyster Wines
Tim Teichgraeber

There’s a guy in Seattle named Jon Rowley, who for a decade has been exploring which wines pair best with oysters. Rowley runs the annual Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. Judges in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles scarf down sweet Kumamoto oysters from Taylor’s Shellfish Farm and chase them with unidentified chilled West Coast white wines, rating each of the wines purely on the gut-level pleasure they deliver with a mouthful of oyster.

It’s a really cool competition, one that I’ve been lucky enough to judge a few times. There’s no complicated analysis or even any debate between the judges. The scores speak for themselves, and they’re fairly articulate. It’s remarkable how many repeat winners there are. Certain wines from certain wineries seem to make the magic happen again and again. They’re different from one another, but they all seem to have a common character. They don’t get in the way of the next oyster. “They finish clean,” says Rowley. “There aren’t many wines that go with oysters but when one does...bingo! It’s a beautiful thing!”

Oysters can make the wrong wine taste terrible, but they have a way of elevating the simplest of white wines. Showing well isn’t a question of grape variety, either. Sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, and pinot gris/grigio wines always make an appearance in the top dozen wines. What the winners all have working for them are freshness, purity, and simplicity. In Europe, chablis and muscadet are the most classic pairings with oysters. Sweet Pacific Kumos probably pair better with relatively fruity Pacific Coast wines. These are my notes on a couple of repeat Oyster Wine Competition winners and a few oyster-whispering European wines.

Gerard Bertrand 2011 PicPoul de Pinet languedoc-roussilon ($17): This tense, simple white seems more lean than interesting, but it’s a favorite wine with oysters in the Languedoc. Ancient varieties like this survive for a reason, and in this case the reason is oysters.

Domaine du tariquet 2011 cotes de gascogne Blanc ($10): This zesty blend of ugni blanc, colombard, sauvignon blanc, and gros manseng hits your tongue like an electric shock, with piercing green apple skin and lemon flavors that are simple, spritzy, and tense.

2011 marques de Vizhoja torre la morreira alBarino, sPain ($18): I love this intense albarino from the Condado do Tea zone of Rias Baixas for its minerally tension and concentrated verbena, lemon drop, and apricot flavors. It’s a great match for lobster, too.

2011 dry creek Vineyard dry chenin Blanc ($11): There are few exciting chenin blancs from California, but the Loire-inspired founders of Dry Creek Vineyard have never wavered in their quest to achieve the same fresh simplicity of great French chenin blancs, and in the recent cool vintages, I think they’ve made the best in their history. A multiple Oyster Wine Award Winner.

2012 king estate Pinot gris oregon ($15): King Estate has made some of the freshest, cleanest Oregon pinot gris since its inception. Melony with green tea notes, it’s a perfect foil for shellfish. Another repeat Oyster Wine Award Winner.

For a lightly seasoned grilled steak, Quinn recommended a Spanish rioja. I ended up with a bottle of La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva Especial from 2001 to go with my dinner—a relatively lean steak, potatoes freshly dug up from the garden, and zucchini—all cooked on a charcoal grill. The wine’s body and flavor merged well with the grilled tastes, creating a terrific meal.

The VirTues of an open Mind

Wine is an infinitely variable beverage, and even the experts can sometimes disagree on what works with a particular type of food. It’s best to leave your preconceptions at the door when seeking advice at a restaurant or liquor store. “People come with questions about spicy cuisine,” Surdyk’s Hall says. “A lot of professionals out there will recommend a dry riesling, and sometimes I can see that, but a dry riesling is often too sharp. In my mouth, high acidity and spiciness equal fire. You don’t want fire.”

On the other hand, he says, “Red meat doesn’t seem to pair well with sweeter wines, but barbecue pork and riesling go together very well. I had it, and it was a landmark in my brain for what is possible in wine and food pairing. It taught me to be very open-minded about it.”

Or as Summerville puts it, “Think of Marilyn Monroe. If you wrap her in nothing but a mink coat, it will be sexy. If you put her in a school dress, it’s still sexy, but you appreciate it in a different way.”

La Belle Vie offers tasting menus of four, five, and eight courses that match each part with an appropriate wine. “We spend a great amount of time figuring out the dish and the wine,” Summerville says. “Sometimes the preparation is more important than the actual protein itself.”

For the regular menu, “Our kitchen is always trying something that throws off the easy choice,” he says. “We have a poached sturgeon that incorporates beets. For sturgeon, you think white wine, but the beets meant we had to look for something different. We chose a light red wine from northwestern Italy. It’s an amazing wine that pairs beautifully with the dish.”

At a restaurant, things can get complicated when multiple guests are ordering different dishes but want to share a bottle of wine. “If they are ordering a steak and lobster for their entrees, there is no real wine that will match both of them,” Summerville says. “People who are ordering a la carte are more interested in the wine than pairing it.”

“People should experiment as much as possible or they will stay in the same area,” Summerville says. “Really pay attention to what you are eating and tasting. Ask questions. Go to classes. And try some bad pairings so they know the difference. One of the best ways to learn is to have some really bad pairings. The bad pairings will shine a light on the good or in-between pairings.”

The same dish can even change depending on the temperature at which it is served. “Grill a steak at night and have a big red wine with it,” Summerville says. Then take that leftover steak at lunchtime, slice in thin, and let it warm to room temperature. Then have a white or a rose with it. Without the heat to bring out the carbonized parts, it makes it appropriate for a white wine. It’s a really amazing transition.”

Why The BesT Wine MighT Be a Beer

“Pairings is my favorite part of the job, even though it makes me hungry,” says Arzu Gokcen, the wine buyer at the Wine Thief and Ale Jail in St. Paul.

“I want to make sure the pairings that come into my head include a wine that they would drink anyway,” Gokcen says. “The perfect pairing might be an earthy French wine, but if they like California zinfandels I need to find something in the middle.”

“My main thing is that we have Spanish wines that will blow your socks off at $8 a bottle. You don’t have to spend a lot of money,” Gokcen says.

While it may pain wine aficionados to admit it, sometimes wine isn’t the best choice for a meal. “When people come into the shop and say they are having Mexican, I tell them to go over to the Ale Jail,” Gokcen says. “As much as I love wine, Sometimes a beer or a cider will be the right fit.”

Andrew Hall of Surdyk’s has a similar outlook. “I eat a lot of Indian food at home, and while I have enjoyed many of the riesling pairings I have made, beer works best. My boss might not like to hear that. I really like a beer with Indian food,” he says.

As beer has grown beyond the pilsners that dominated the American palate for so long, food pairings have grown in interest.

“I think many of the same principles apply. Do you want a contrast with the meal and cleanse the palate, or something that is more in the same direction as the meal?” Hall says.

Mark Joseph, the beer manager at the Ale Jail, sees that clearly, both for meals and snacks like cheese.

The Ale Jail does regular beer and cheese pairings with the Mississippi Market co-op. One that Joseph raved about was Founders Dirty Bastard Scottish ale and an applewood smoked cheddar from Carr Valley. The beer “adds a peat flavor that doesn’t overpower it,” he says.

When I tried them, the two items worked wonderfully together, and the beer also turned out to be a nice complement to the homemade chili I made for dinner. The warming, smooth beer brought out the sharp smokiness of the cheese, while also complementing the fairly mild chili.

Cheese and wine also go together closely, which puts Surdyk’s in a strong position. “If they have already chosen the cheese and bring it into the liquor store, it opens doors and closes others,” Hall says. “I don’t say this is the wine for the cheese. I ask a lot of questions, and it opens and closes doors.”

Again, it’s a matter of the flavors and textures that come from the cheeses that help to determine the kind of wine. For example, blue cheeses often work well with sweeter wines, Hall says.

Why Are you Dining?

For Daggett, the first question isn’t what is the protein, but “what’s the preparation?

What are the informing spices? It may have mint, but will it be minty?” There’s also a matter of the meal’s purpose. An important dinner party—for your boss or an anniversary or birthday—could require advance work. It’s a good idea to practice the meal before you make it for the big event. If so, the Wine Company’s Daggett suggests, why not test-drive the wines at the same time?

Events, especially those with multiple courses, provide additional, fun challenges for wine pairings. It’s good to look at the arc of the meal, as it travels from soup to salad, through the main course, and then on to dessert. “The middle of the meal will have the heaviest wine,” say Gokcen of the Wine Thief. “All of the wines match, but they are mainly paired for the course. I’m not going all over the world.

If it sounds like an Italian-themed dinner, I will go Old World.” “Between the food and the wine, you need to decide which gets to take center stage,” says Daggett of the Wine Company. “If it is very complex food that involves a lot of ingredients, then keep the wine simple. If the wine has been aged for a long time in the basement and you spent a lot of money on it, then let the food be simple.”

Too much competition can make for an exhausting evening, he says. “The party may have been really good and amazing, but you were never able to completely relax and enjoy it. It was sensory overload.

“Use common sense. Pair wine with food because it tastes good. Instincts are right at least two-thirds of the time if you are paying attention. That’s really what a connoisseur is: anyone who has discovered something by paying attention,” Daggett says.

And one final bit of advice: Don’t be afraid to fail.

“I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right,” Daggett says. “You get humble really fast.”

Ed Huyck is City Pages’ theater critic and also covers the arts for several other Twin Cities publications.