Shuck and awe: Tasting and matching oysters

Julie Sheppard

Julie Sheppard

02 December 2015

We all know that champagne, Chablis and stout are great matches for oysters, but what about Txakoli, Pale Ale and Bordeaux Blanc? Julie Sheppard joins a team of intrepid tasters as they take oyster matching to the max


For seafood restaurants, autumn means one thing: native oysters are back in season. During months with an ‘r’ in their name (September to April) it’s possible to harvest these prized molluscs, which spawn from May to August. In terms of drinks pairing, there are several classic white wine matches, including champagne, chablis and muscadet; while stouts and porters are traditional beer partners.

But regular readers will know that Imbibe likes to shake things up, so we decided to have an oyster pairing without any of the usual suspects. Instead, we opened up the playing field to look at a broader selection of styles, and focused as much on texture and other factors such as alcohol levels, as we did on flavour profiles.

Our bivalves were provided by Wright Brothers, who farm natives at their Duchy oyster farm on the Helford River in Cornwall. Meaty, with some sweetness and a long, savoury finish, they were served raw, with lemon or a mignonette dressing. We then lined up six different beers and six wines in front of our tasters. It was time to get shucking...


HOW IT WORKS
We compiled an initial list of beer and wine styles that we thought had the potential to match oysters, steering clear of conventional matches. We then invited suppliers to submit drinks from their portfolios within these different styles. Beers and wines were tasted blind, initially on their own and then paired with raw native oysters. The scores given are for the match with food, out of 100.

THE PANEL

Mark Dorber, The Anchor at Walberswick; Susanna Forbes, drinkbritain.com; Ivan Ruiz, Wright Brothers; Meg Ryan, Fox Fine Wine & Spirits; Alexandra Scovarza, Ealing Park Tavern; Julie Sheppard, Imbibe


The wines

The wine selection ranged from mineral- or citrus-led wines such as Txakoli and bordeaux blanc to fuller, fruitier styles like an Italian Catarratto blend. We also wanted to include some bottles from different coastal growing areas around the world where wines are paired with local oysters, such as Marlborough in New Zealand and Jerez in Spain.

We were interested in the effect of the wine’s aromatics, acidity levels, flavour profiles and texture on the oysters. Classic matches rely on high acidity, minerality and often a touch of salinity. Can less well-known alternatives do the job just as well? Do complimentary flavours always work or can a contrast be just as good?

The results showed that oysters offer more flexible pairing choices than you might think. Both full-on, fruity styles and focused, mineral wines can work. A lean palate can refresh, while a textured one makes oysters more meaty and intense. Every wine was a hit with at least one of the tasters, proving this match can simply boil down to personal taste – not that surprising as oysters are one of those ‘love or hate’ dishes. The closeness of the scores (from 79 to 73) shows that you can have some fun with wine pairings, with little danger of making a truly awful match.

79 Tasca d’Almerita, Leone d’Almerita 2014, Sicily, Italy
A Catarratto-dominant blend (47%), with Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer Aromatico. ‘Cottage garden on the nose. Textured and rich with a long vibrant finish; the weight balances the texture of the oysters,’ SF. ‘Richness is balanced by attractive minerality, with a fruity finish. Works surprisingly well as a contrasting match with the oysters,’ JS.
£10.70, Berkmann Wine Cellars, 020 7609 4711

78 Rezabal Txacolí 2013, Getariako Txakolina, País Vasco, Spain
Classic Txakoli made from Hondarabbi Zuri. ‘Green aromas of cucumber and asparagus. Crisp and fresh on the palate with nice acidity,’ AS. ‘Clean, simple and palate cleansing. The high acidity provides a contrast with the oysters,’ MD. ‘A mineral, stony and saline match. The oysters and wine pair nicely,’ MR.
£10.12, Bibendum Wine, 0845 263 6924

75 Sánchez Romate Bella Luna Fino, Jerez, Spain
Silver medal winner in the Sommelier Wine Awards this year. ‘Savoury nose, with nutty, saline notes. Intensely savoury and bone-dry on the palate with a long, salty finish and low acidity that lets the oysters shine,’ JS. ‘The
wine doesn’t fight the salinity, and teases out the meaty flavours of the oysters successfully,’ MD.
£5.14/37.5cl, Enotria, 020 8961 5161

75 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc 2014, Marlborough, New Zealand
Unmistakable 100% Marlborough Sauvignon. ‘Intense tropical aromas: passion fruit, guava, stonefruit. Same flavours on the palate, with high acidity that complements the oysters, though the fruitiness overtakes slightly,’ IR. ‘Tart pineapple, grapefruit and lime; apples and pears too. Great intensity, lights up so many flavours when it’s paired with the oysters,’ SF.
£9.72, Negociants UK, 01582 46259

74 Mas Amiel Vertigo Blanc 2014, Côtes du Roussillon, France
A Grenache Blanc-dominant blend, with Macabeu, Roussanne and Marsanne. ‘The wine and oysters complement each other’s flavours, with the high acidity of the wine cutting through the minerality of the oysters,’ IR. ‘Exotic fragrance and ripe tropical fruit. The oysters downplay the exuberant florality, resulting in a richly textured conversation,’ SF.
£11.25, Perfect Cellar, 020 3617 6945

73 Château Bel Air Perponcher Reserve Blanc 2014, Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux, France
Mainly Sémillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. ‘Aromatic on the nose; fresh and citrusy with stonefruit and lemon,’ AS. ‘The oysters make this wine much fuller and greener, the flavour complements their saltiness,’ MR. ‘Well made. The full-flavoured, open texture of this wine pairs very well and releases mineral and sea flavours,’ MD.
£8.75, WineService, 01342 837333


The beers

Our beer selection offered a range of different styles, beyond the classic dark beers that we already knew worked well – though we did include a couple of those in the mix. White beer and pale ale were thrown into the ring, along
with a new release from London Brewing Co: their twist on a sour beer.

The tasters were looking at factors such as carbonation, hoppiness and alcohol levels, as well as flavour and aroma. Was there a lighter alternative for oyster lovers who don’t like the full-on flavours of stout and porter?

The answer came in the form of divine inspiration from the Cistercian monks of Orval Abbey and their Trappist beer. A look at the abv percentages shows that higher alcohol levels gave more successful pairings. The exception to this was Guinness Dublin Porter, which had the lowest abv of all the beers, but worked thanks to its creamy texture. Along with Meantime’s porter it proved that dark beers do work better with oysters than lighter ales.

82 Orval, Belgium
Distinctive, dry-hopped Trappist beer. ‘Dense, creamy head. Hoppy, bready, citrus and herbal, with a very dry finish,’ JS. ‘The hops complement the saltiness and minerality of the oyster,’ IR. ‘The Orval yeast hits the oyster head-on and magnifies the minerality and bitterness,’ MD.
6.2% abv, RRP £3.20/33cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

70 Guinness Dublin Porter, Ireland
A twist on classic Guinness, using a recipe from 1796. ‘Milk and dark chocolate, with light bitterness on the finish,’ SF. ‘Smooth velvety palate; quite light for a porter. It sits quietly in the background with the oysters,’ JS. ‘There’s a creamy complementary roundness to this that brings up the oyster flavours,’ IR.
3.8% abv, £13.66/8x33cl, Matthew Clark, 0344 822 3910

67 Meantime London Porter, UK
Traditional porter brewed to be dark and complex. ‘Dark chocolate notes head towards milky coffee on the finish. A perfect match; the carbonation balances the meaty sweetness of the oysters,’ SF. ‘Dense and smoky, with chocolate and molasses. A sweet versus salty match that makes the oysters more savoury,’ MR.
6.5% abv, £28.99/6x750ml, Meantime Brewing Company, 020 8819 7479

60 Einstök Icelandic White Ale, Iceland
White beer made with glacial water. ‘Clean lemon flavour and good balance. Light citrus aromas and some crunchy texture on the palate make it a good match,’ MD. ‘A mineral quality; clean with delicate citrus on nose and palate. Refreshes your mouth after an oyster, but there’s no interplay of flavours,’ JS.
5.2% abv, RRP £3/33cl, James Clay, 01422 377560

58 pHuscia Berliner Weisse, UK
A twist on a traditional sour German Berliner Weisse: lactic sourness comes from puréed raspberry, with morello cherries to add sweetness. ‘Soft red fruit aromas, clean lactic attack with rich, grainy, malt flavour underneath. Well balanced, but a culture clash with oysters,’ MD. ‘Tart, sour candy character, which is tamed by the saltiness of the oysters,’ MR.
4.9% abv, £89/30l-keg, London Brewing Co, 07957 137 181

55 Whitstable Bay Pale Ale, UK
Light ale, with sweet maltiness, brewed with Tettnang and Styrian Golding hops. ‘Hobnob notes on the nose. Light, elegant hop notes and medium bitterness on the clean, balanced finish. The bitterness becomes too amplified with the oysters,’ SF. ‘The hops are very loud; just too much for the oysters,’ MR. ‘For me this is a very good match, the oysters complement the hops,’ IR.
4% abv, £29.90/16x500ml, Shepherd Neame, 01795 597000


Conclusions

  • Wine pairing with oysters is a much safer exercise than beer pairing, with more scope for interesting matches.
  • Lean, mineral wines cleanse the palate; while richly textured wines bring out the meaty mouthfeel of oysters.
  • Complementary flavours, such as salinity, work well; but so do contrasting citrus, tropical and stonefruit profiles.
  • Higher abv beers make a more successful match; also look for lower carbonation and creamy textures.
  • Trappist beers and dark beers are the best styles to experiment with if you want to offer a different beer pairing.
  • Try and upsell with oysters: offer small tasters of three different wines or beers to see which your customers prefer.

From the panel

Mark Dorber, The Anchor at Walberswick
‘A fascinating line-up of beers and wines. The drinks that worked best tended to dovetail with the salinity and the minerality of the oysters rather than confront them head-on with overpowering fruit. Complementary elements here are the key to a successful match.’

Susanna Forbes, drinkbritain.com
‘I was interested in how well the fragrant wines went with the oysters. Almost the more fragrant the better, since the oysters’ natural salinity converted the floral exuberance into an elegant additional layer to the experience. With the beers, a certain level of alcohol was important. For me, the classic porter match won it. The way the silky chocolate
notes caressed the freshness of the oyster was both exciting and seductive – and moreish.’

Ivan Ruiz, Wright Brothers
‘There were some interesting and unusual combinations of flavours with the mineral native oysters. The acidity levels in the wines and hoppiness of the beer were important factors. My favourite matches were the Côtes du Roussillon Vertigo Blanc and the Guinness Dublin Porter.’

Meg Ryan, Fox Fine Wine & Spirits
‘What an inspiration. Many things are considered classics and “correct” pairings, but blind tasting allows for objective analysis. I won’t be reaching for these preordained classics for some time: it’s oysters and Bordeaux Blanc from now on. Château Bel Air: oh mon dieu!’

Alexandra Scovarza, Ealing Park Tavern
‘My favourite match was the Sicilian white, Leone d’Almerita, which is a funny thing. Although I list Italian white wines, they aren’t often my favourites. Today I found that I actually like them – especially with oysters!’

Julie Sheppard, Imbibe
‘I tend to fall back on champagne or chablis as a match with oysters, so it was eye-opening to look at other alternatives. For me, wines that had fruit rather than minerality added a new dimension to the oysters, though overall it was the fino that had real wow factor as a wine match; while the creamy yet dry and bitter texture of the Orval made a perfect beer match.’


Thanks to the team at The Mermaid bar at Wright Brothers South Kensington for hosting this tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos: Miles Willis.

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