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Red Wine with Oysters?

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By Zoltan Szabo

This is how it all began. I got email from John Szabo MS: "Send this link to Patrick We could have some fun experimenting with this!". It was Eric Asimov's recent NY Times piece about pairing oysters with red wine, 'A rule waiting to be broken'. Immediately I forwarded John's email onto my friend, Patrick McMurray, Guinness Book of Records Oyster Shucking Champion, who owns Starfish Oysterbed and Grill. Let's find out for ourselves I suggest. His response? "That is the most awful picture of oysters I've ever seen. Looks like someone fished them out of the wine tasters spitting bucket! Yes of course we should do this. Who else do you want to bring?

Quickly, the two of us assembled and invited a group of wine and oster loving peeps. Some of the finest palates in the country: His Winexellency Tony Aspler OC and his lovely wife, Deborah, writer and uber-critic Margaret Swaine and hubby, Bill Siegel, Chris Johns of enRoute, Amy Rosen of The National Post, Food Network's "Thirsty Traveller" Kevin Brauch, Dick Snyder of City Bites; Splendido's Bruce Wallner, Chef Anthony Walsh of the Oliver Bonacini Group of Restaurants, Spirit of Hospitality's Rudy Guo; Sasha Chapman from The Globe & Mail, Gremolata's Malcolm Jolley and John Szabo.

This is what I wrote them in an email when I first invited everyone:

"Bring one (or two) bottle(s) of your favourite oyster friendly red wine in a brown paper bag! We will taste blind, just to avoid any preconceived ideas! We will sample oyster belonging to all five major species."

John had suggested trying to match the iodine in oysters with "inky" reds like Madiran. I wasn't so sure and offered the guests a list of lighter reds I thought might have a better chance of working: Gamays, Pinot Noirs, maybe a Barbera. The point is to get away from oak, or at least heavy oak. The big concern for me (and from others that RSVPed) was about the oystery iodine and red wine tannins just not liking each other. Still, as Patrick explained to me, some oysters actually have very little iodine compared to others, so you couldn't be sure. (In fact, not only do different types of oysters differ in taste, the same oysters from the same place will differ at different times of the year.)

Excited and in anticipation, I emailed my good friend Michael Pataran, who left the snows of Toronto to be Chef at Shogun Revolver in Nassau, The Bahamas. We're doing a special Canada Day event down there, and I mentioned our taste test. He didn't seem too impressed and joked, "Oysters with red wine is like a blow job with teeth. You might think you want it, but the end result won't be so pleasurable! I'll take my Loire and Alsatian whites, thank you."

I even emailed Jancis Robinson, who wrote back "Have to admit I have zero experience of reds with oysters. Let us know how you get on".

On the big night, we all showed up in time and Patrick served us Mapleques which we had with Malivoire's 2007 Melon, just to fine tune our palates. Then, the fun started!

First oysters:

Burleigh Bros., Malpeque, Ellerslie, P.E.I., bottom grown wild, relocated, farmed oyster, Crassostrea virginica - North American Atlantic oyster, "medium bodied texture, with a sharp note of sea salt, and a clean, sweet, steel, and seaweed note to finish" with:

Sohler La Pièce de la Chapelle Pinot Noir 2002 from Alsace

Channing Daughters Blaufrankisch 2006 from Long Island

Vietti Dolcetto d'Alba 2003


Alaskan Oyster Co-Op - Canoe Lagoon - Blasket Island Alaska. - Rack grown and finished oyster, Crassostrea gigas - North American West Coast Pacific oyster, "firm textured, sweet cream silkiness, with a distinct honeydew melon, and cucumber sweet taste" with:

La Margelle Saumur Red 1996

Rosehall Run Sullywicker Red 2006 from Prince Edward County

Juliénas Domaine Guy Voluet 2006


Taylor Shellfish - Kumamoto - Puget Sound - WA, fully cultured, rack, to beach finish, Crassostrea sikaema - Kumamoto, Japanese in origin, cultured in WA, "small sized, plump morsel, whit a silky texture, and a sweet, melon start, and salty finish" with:

Henry of Pelham Gamay 2003

Anselmann St. Laurent Trocken 2003 from the Pfalz

Lailey Pinot Noir 2004


Taylor Shellfish, Puget Sound, WA. -cultured oyster, and grown in traditional "dyke" system of back-filled terraces to allow the oyster to be submerged in shallow pools at low tide Oestera lurida, The Olympia, Native oyster to North America's West Coast, "petite, smallest oyster at market size, yet has the most complex flavour range: Ocean sea salt to start, sweet cream as it melts across the palate, venturing into sea weed, and fresh cut grass, with a dry, metallic finish" with:

Unger G?ttweiger Berg Pinot Noir 2005 from Austria

Fennochio Barbera d'Alba 2005

MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River 2006


Kelly's Galway Oyster, Galway Bay, Ireland, wild, bottom grown, farm bed finished, Oestera edulis, European flats, "medium sized, firm, toothsome oyster, big, rustic ocean salt and sea weed, earthiness to start, with a sweet to metallic finish, dry on the palate" with:

Morogues Menetou Salon Les Cras Pinot Noir 2004

Saslov Adom Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 from Israel

Bergwater Rosé 2005 from South Africa

The results were mixed. My best matches were Sohler La Pièce de la Chapelle Pinot Noir 2002 from Alsace with Malpeques in the first flight and Henry of Pelham Gamay 2003 with the Kumamotos in the third flight. At the end of the evening we also tried Ascheri Barbera d'Alba 2005, Marotti Campi Orgiolo Lacrima di Morro d'Alba 2004 and San Pietro Laghrein 2005 from Alto Adige with Belgian fries and seared scallops.

Tony Aspler sent me his comments and I especially enjoyed his conclusion "A fun evening was had by all. Conclusion: red wine with oysters is a bit of a stretch. Happy to try it once, but like garlic ice cream or foie gras crème brulée, once is enough".

Sommelier Bruce Wallner diplomatically weighed in: "Some very surprising wines and delicious oysters, but it wasn't all magic on the synergy side of things. But if you don't try, you don't know".

Chef Anthony Walsh "Hey, always enlightening! The first wine, the Alsatian Pinot was about it for me. The oysters are as varied in tastes as the wines, that in itself is tough to deal with. For me, textures are huge as well as the critical temperature."

Kevin Brauch "Fascinating stuff last night. Some of the wines really worked for me; more often the juicy, berry driven styles. Just made for a honest, pleasing taste experience."

Malcolm Jolley "By the time we got to the Kumomatos I stopped trying to pair or match. Not because of the wines, but because the complex flavours of the oysters were being lost."

So, there were no groundbreaking discoveries made other than having a fine bunch of peeps gathering together, eating oysters and drinking red wine is always a great idea. And it was fun to have a group of people "on the same page" hang out, relax and let loose a little. As Tony writes on his site,

"The oysters and the wine had taken their effect. The conversation around the table got raunchy, as the question was posed, "What is the female equivalent of the adjective phallic?" Patrick McMurray, crowned subsequently by Zoltan as "The King of the Oyster," came up with the best term: vulvalicious."

Maybe oysters and red wine is a more dangerous combination that we thought!

The Starfish Experience:

The big lesson from our evening of red wine and oysters might be that the oyster matters more than the wine. As long as the red wine is light and soft in tannin it has the possibility of working. I even liked the Marotti Campi Orgiolo Lacrima di Morro d'Alba 2004, which is quite unusual. What nearly everyone around the table did agree on was that the Malpeques we had at first seemed to match best. In this, I think the sommelier can learn from the shucker, so I asked King Patrick of the Oysters what he usually pours. He told me that if they're adventurous enough to try red (of just won't drink white) he steers them towards lighter Pinot Noirs. His main recomendations are classics whites like, Sancerres, Meuscadets, Sauvingon Blancs andn of course, Champagne or Cremants. Then there's beer, including Guiness and Starfish's own "Oyster Stout".


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