Best Port Wine LCBO
We all know that Chablis and Champagne work well, but the world of drink and oyster pairings goes much deeper.
By Dick Snyder
One of the best things about winter is oyster season. For we drinkers, these lovely cooler months give us ample opportunity for experimenting to find the ideal oyster and drink pairing—something that will make the most of these little bivalve delights.
Oysters are best eaten in the colder months, as the little critters spend their summer energies on fornicating, which makes them stupid and irritable. And a horny oyster has different texture and flavour that is less than ideal (unless you like your oysters “milky”) though not entirely unpleasant. It’s the cold months (the ones with an “R”) that yield a plump and pleasantly chewy oyster that has that ideal fresh ocean-spray and sweet herbal quality we all know and love.
Several years ago I asked my globe-travelling chef buddy Michael Pataran what he thought about some of the more conventional oyster pairings—Champagne, sparkling wine, Muscadet, Chablis, etc.—and he went on a bit of a tirade. Essentially, though the conventional pairings are at least acceptable and will keep you out of trouble, he felt that there is ample opportunity to do better, with such libations as sake, beer, cider, whisky and even cocktails.
At last week’s second annual Great Canadian Oyster and VQA Wine Experience, held at Terroni Adelaide, dozens of Ontario wineries presented both white and red wines to go with a wide variety of oysters. (The event is organized by VQA Ontario and Master Sommelier John Szabo, so watch for it next year, it’s killer!) It was tremendous fun to sample oysters with all kinds of wines, ranging from sparkling to Riesling to rose to red, just to name a few. And at the dinner, which featured three dishes with another bivalve—the venerable scallop—as the star, it was a Pinot Noir that won the hearts and palates of the crowd. (Stanner’s Vineyard 2014 Barrel Select Pinot Noir, Prince Edward County.)
So with all this in mind, let’s examine a few pairing ideas both conventional and whacky—and a few in-betweens.
Champagne and sparkling wine
This is the no brainer. It just works. Why? Oysters are salty, tangy, sweet, and they carry a hefty dose of zinc. (That zinc can clash with tannins in red wines, but more on that later.) These mineral-sweet flavours blend with herbal grassy flavours that come alive once you start chewing. So a crisp and mineral-driven sparkler is just the complementary ticket, while the bubbles refresh the palate. And think of this: the chalky limestone soils of Champagne and other great sparkling wine regions of the world (hello, Prince Edward County!) are full of seashells. Ergo, a frickin’ nice pairing—as mother nature intended.
Buy a bottle: Henry of Pelham Cuvée Catherine (LCBO 217521, $29.95). Buy it direct from Henry of Pelham or at the LCBO. Or get your French on with Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut Champagne (LCBO 155341, $70.95).
Or just go out: The lobby d|bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto (60 Yorkville Ave.) serves a dozen market oysters (currently Mallet oysters from New Brunswick) with black pepper mignonette and lemon ($36). For Champagne, they are pouring Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut ($29/glass) and Moët et Chandon Brut Rosé ($34/glass). The raw bar at La Banane is a stunning perch from which to explore the interplay of fresh-shucked oysters with a bottle from sommelier Christopher Wickens’ list of more than a dozen rare and intriguing Champagnes.
Beer and cider
Beer and cider, though quite different animals, work so well with oysters in so many ways. Without going into massive detail, we suggest you find a bar with a reputable shucker and get down to tasting. Order up your favourite beer or cider, and taste like crazy. What beer and cider bring to the picture (as opposed to wine) is some sweetness and grain-nuttiness—depending on the beer, of course. But that rich, round malty flavour of beer is a satisfyingly hefty flavour pairing, and pretty much was considered “lunch” back in the day in port towns like Boston and Montreal. Think of stout, with roasted nut and chocolate flavours that contrast with the creamy, herbal flavours of the oyster in a deliciously good way. (Stout can also power through an oyster laden with multiple toppings, from hot sauce to horseradish.) Or a wheat beer, where the citrus elements act like the lemon you might be tempted to drizzle over top. Or a hoppy lager or IPA, with its bright herbal-citrus notes. Or a dry cider, with zippy apple acidity… like a sauce all on its own. These all work. Give ’em a whirl!
Buy a bottle (or two): Wellington Imperial Russian Stout ($3.65/473 ml can at the LCBO) or Ernest Dry Cider ($3.35/473ml can at the LCBO—it’s made from Ontario apples and sweetened with a little Ontario honey).
Or just go out: The newly opened Northern Maverick Brewing Co. (115 Bathurst St. at Adelaide) has a serious oyster bar and dedicated shucker, and currently offers $3 a piece Malpeques, Kusshis, Cascumpec Bays and Black Points. The beer of choice is the White IPA ($6.75/13 oz or $8.25/20 oz).
I’m a little out of my depth here, but every time I’ve had sake with fresh-shucked oysters the pairing has been outstanding. So I asked Michael Tremblay of Ki Modern Japanese restaurant to explain. He’s a sake sommelier, judge and instructor and also a self-described “wine nut.” While he loves the classic pairings with Chablis and Champagne, Tremblay asserts that sake, with a profile that is subtler and lower in acid than wine, is a better match. “Sake is very subtle and tends to lend a supporting role. It only has about one-quarter the acid you would find in a white wine, which means that it ‘melts’ into the flavours of the oyster much better without washing away the subtleties.” He’s also no purist when it comes to oyster and sauces or condiments, which is refreshing if you’ve ever hung out with an oyster snob. “The condiments you put on the oysters will have an impact on changing the sake’s profile, which can be really cool!” he says. Finally, we need to talk about umami. “The naturally occurring umami (glutamate) in oysters marries exceptionally well with the relatively high levels of umami in sake. (There are over 25 amino acids that contribute to umami.) Umami tends to intensify when you bring two umami rich ingredients together, like a classic Italian tomato sauce (tomatoes = high umami) and Parmagiana (crazy high levels of umami).” So there you go. The only drag is that Ki Modern Japanese does not serve fresh-shucked oysters outside of summer patio season. So do go to Ki for the outstanding sake, sushi and izakaya—and a chat with the charming Mr. Tremblay—but you’ll have to wait a few months to get crazy with the sake and oysters on the patio.
Buy a bottle: Rihaku “Dance of Discovery” Junmai, Shimane, Japan (LCBO 445287, $18.80/300ml online at LCBO). Says Tremblay: “This is a favourite of mine for the rare local rice used to make it, which is called Kan no Mai. The sake has salinity, smoke, intermingled with banana and cereal notes.”
Or just go out: You can always grab some oysters to go (either shucked or un-shucked) from Rodney’s Oyster House (469 King St. W., 416-363-8105) and take them home to crack with the Rihaku.
There’s an out-of-print book written by a couple of Master Sommeliers called Red Wine with Fish. When it came out in the 1989, it was revolutionary because it debunked and dissected many of the food-and-drink pairing myths that persist to this day. Red wine with fish? Yep. Why the hell not? Last week, we sat down with Luca Martini, who owns several restaurants in Italy and achieved the title of World’s Best Sommelier in Europe. He suggested we try a Barbera with the freshly shucked oysters we were lunching on at Northern Maverick Brewing Co. Barbera is a fresh and brightly acidic wine from northern Italy, usually on the lighter side. It can be quite plush, almost like a Merlot. The 2016 Briccotondo Barbera paired beautifully with the St. Simon oysters from New Brunswick, the bright blackberry-cherry and pepper flavours acting akin to a mignonette. This pairing works well in the mouth with the oyster, or as a refreshing sip after swallowing. You could also try any light Pinot Noir, especially a village-level Burgundy, or a lighter Gamay.
Buy a bottle (or two): Fontanafredda Briccotondo Barbera (372987, $14.95 at LCBO). This is the wine I tasted, and it’s a really good wine at a good price.
Or just go out: Noce Restaurant (875 Queen St. W., 416-504-3463) for buck-fifty-a-shuck on Thursdays with specials on sparkling wine (my fave: Henry of Pelham Carte Blanche for $14/glass). Or Boehmer (93 Ossington Ave., 416-531-3800) for buck-a-shuck Tuesdays, when the entire wine list is half price. (The oysters are top-notch, too, by the way. Sourced from Oyster Boy.)
The Ceili Cottage’s Patrick McMurray (a world champ shucker and super dude) has figured out the perfect way to serve whisky with oysters. No, you don’t drizzle whisky onto the oysters. No, you don’t sip whisky while you’re eating the oyster. No, you don’t use whisky in a mignonette. It’s way more elemental than that. Earlier this week, at the launch party for the annual Cooking Issue of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants magazine, Patrick was on hand to demonstrate the proper way to marry oyster and whisky. “It’s an experience more than a pairing,” he told me. “The oyster and the whisky are each individual motions. You enjoy your oyster—chew it and swallow—and then you pour whisky into the empty shell. All those residual ocean juices mix with the whisky and marinate. Then you drink it. That way, you experience the oyster on its own as nature intended. And you can fit a heck of a lot more whisky into an empty shell!” Whisky and oysters are a natural, he says. “Think of Talisker, on the shores of the Isle of Skye, where a babbling brook supplies the water for distilling, and then drains into the ocean right by the oyster beds.” Whisky is made around the world—Japan, Ireland, Scotland, United States, etc.—in closer proximity to oyster beds than wine is… so if what grows together goes together, you need to drink more whisky with your shucks.
Buy a bottle: Lot No. 40 Pot Still Canadian Whisky (382861, $39.95) or J.P. Wiser’s 15 YO Canadian Whisky (536946, $49.95 ) — these were the two whiskies Patrick McMurray poured with his oysters at the C100B event this week.
Or just go out: Get to the barra oisri (oyster bar) at the Ceili Cottage. (1301 Queen St. E., 416-406-1301). Nuff said.