Thursday, May 1, 2014

Stop the press: sparkling wine is best with oysters

Pearl in the oyster: Bench 1775's Val Tait

Only an oyster fanatic would enjoy spending six hours chewing oysters and tasting wine to come up with ideal pairings.

I came to oysters late, having grown up in Saskatchewan. No wisecracks about Prairie oysters!

Whether or not you are an oyster aficionado, the Osoyoos Oyster Festival confirmed once again that a good sparkling wine is the best pairing with oysters. The judges at the festival, after tasting 119 wines, came down solidly for Noble Ridge The One 2010 ($39.90) as the top choice. The runner up was Sperling Vineyards Brut 2009 ($40). Both are 90 point wines.

I can’t say that was a surprise for a sparkling wine to be the overall winner. There is a long history of Champagne and oysters supporting each other. We could have finished the judging in 10 minutes.

Still, we had a duty to assess pairings with other wines in case there was no sparkling wine on hand. This is by no means easy, given the subtle differences in flavours among oysters.

If you will overlook the limits of my Saskatchewan education in oysters, here are thoughts on other pairings.

Sauvignon Blanc, with its lime and lemon flavours and its racy acidity, is like the squeeze of lemon on a fresh oyster. La Frenz Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($22) was the winner in this varietal category. It is a tangy, refreshing wine with lots of lime and herbs (91 points).  The runner-up was Bench 1775 Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($17.90), a crisp wine also displaying lime and herbal aromas and flavours. (90).

Pinot Gris was the largest varietal category. The variety is versatile enough to pair with a lot of foods, including oysters. The flights were divided between the two judging panels, producing two winners and two runners-up initially. These were reduced to one each in the final round, but I will mention all four.

The winning Pinot Gris wines in the first round were Tightrope Pinot Gris 2013  ($19.90) and Bench 1775 Pinot Gris 2013 ($17.90).  The Tightrope wine is a refreshing and delicious white, with aromas and flavours of banana, apple and pear (90). The Bench 1775 wine has aromas and flavours of pineapple and peach, with a squeeze of grapefruit on the finish that made it the final round winner. 91.

The performance of Bench 1775 is noteworthy.  Bench 1775 Chardonnay 2013 ($18.90) was runner-up in the oaked Chardonnay class. I scored the wine 88. With its tangy grapefruit flavours and very subtle oak, it was a better oyster pairing than the winner in this class.

The veteran Okanagan viticultural consultant, Val Tait, became general manager last spring of Bench 1775, formerly the Soaring Eagle Winery. Under previous ownership, Soaring Eagle had been run into receivership. Clearly, the place is back on even keel, with a pearl of its own directing the production of quality wines.

The runners-up in the Pinot Gris category were Gray Monk Pinot Gris 2013 ($17.99), which just pipped Unsworth Vineyards Pinot Gris ($19.90) in the final round. The Gray Monk was not served to my panel but it has long been one of the most reliable of Okanagan Pinot Gris.

Unsworth is a winery in the Cowichan Valley. The vintage was not shown on the spread sheet of competition wines but the vintage currently listed on the Unsworth website is 2011. This is a very good wine, with citrus flavours, a crisp mineral backbone and the squeeze of grapefruit that the oyster appreciated.

Pinot Blanc is reasonably successful as an oyster wine. The variety often has flavours and aromas of green apples but without the showy personality of Sauvignon Blanc or the fruitiness of Pinot Gris. Think of it as the supporting actor.

Gray Monk Pinot Blanc 2012 ($15.99), the winner, shows classic green apples and honeydew melon (90). Runner-up Wild Goose Vineyards Mystic River Pinot Blanc 2013 ($19) has the apple notes mingled with the minerality of that vineyard. I scored it only 87 but I suspect it has not settled down totally in the bottle.

The Riesling pairings seemed a little more challenging. The Old Vines style, with lots of petrol and minerality, did not always flatter the oysters, at least in my opinion. The winner was Konzelmann Riesling 2012 ($11.95), a great value from an Ontario winery. Its fruitiness and moderate minerality paired well with oysters (no score available).

Runner-up was Monster Vineyards Riesling 2012 ($20), a delicious wine with lemon on the nose and palate, along with a very moderate note of petrol and with soft acidity. (91).

There were two Chardonnay classes. Frankly, I would not pair Chardonnay with oysters, especially not oaked Chardonnay. You can come away with a mouthful of fishy flavours.

But if I had to, I would choose the purity of unoaked Chardonnay. The winner was Mt. Boucherie Unoaked Chardonnay 2012 ($15) and the runner-up was Gray Monk Unwooded Chardonnay 2012 ($16.99). I have no scores on either wine.

Poplar Grove Chardonnay 2012 ($21.90) was the winner in the oaked Chardonnay category. I think it won more because it is just such a good wine (91) than because it pairs well with oysters. Keep this wine, as well the Bench 1775 Chardonnay, for the fresh halibut now in the market.

Other varietals and blends were clustered in the wild card category. The winner was Cellar Hand Free Run White 2012 ($16) from Black Hills. This is a complex blend of 59% Pinot Blanc and 27% Chardonnay, completed with Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat and Pinot Gris. It is crisp and refreshing, with notes of pear and citrus. (88). It is very good value.

Runners up were Moon Curser Viognier 2012 ($28) and Poplar Grove Viognier 2012 ($24.90). These are both 90 point wines that, in my view, also cry out for fresh halibut, not oysters.++

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