Celebrate Virginia Oyster Month with These Local Wine and Brine Pairings

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As much as any food, oysters can taste like where they’re from.  Water salinity, rain, types of algae, surrounding marsh, and tidal flows impact the flavor of oysters.  This flavor expression of place is called merroir (also, meroir), similar to that French notion of terroir often used to describe a wine’s sense of place.

In November 2015, Governor Terry Mcauliffe officially launched the Virginia Oyster Trail comprised of eight distinct regions showcasing the diversity of the state’s waterways.  The Governor also designated November as Virginia Oyster Month to bring attention to the Commonwealth’s booming oyster industry.

Known as the Oyster Capital of the East Coast, the Commonwealth of Virginia is the largest producer of wild-catch and farm-raised oysters in the country. More than 40 million oysters cultivated in Virginia waterways were sold last year.

All oysters cultivated in Virginia waters are the same species, Crassostrea virginica, and each region has a unique flavor expression of place.  

Similar to oysters, many wines grown in Virginia have a unique expression of their place.

Based on my informal survey of consuming enormous amounts of oysters from all regions and a few wines from around the state, I’ve concluded that local wine and oysters make for a perfect pairing.

Virginia Chardonnays aged in steel tend to pair best with saltier oysters, those cultivated on the seaside and in the lower Bay (Regions 1, 3, 6 and 7).  White wines aged in oak taste best when paired with sweeter oysters like those cultivated in the waters around Tangier Island (Regions 5 and 8).

Higher acid whites like Petit Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc tend to pair best with oysters cultivated in waters with lower salinity like those from the Upper Bay regions (2 and 4).  Think of zingy acidity in wine like a squeeze of lemon on the oyster.   These simple ‘oyster-wine pairing rules of thumb’ are secondary to the wine you like with whatever oysters you prefer.

Following are just a few of my favorite Virginia and Maryland wines to pair with local oysters:

Chatham Vineyards 2016 Steel Chardonnay ($20)
Machipongo, chathamvineyards.net
Located in the town of Machipongo on the Bay side of the Eastern Shore, Chatham Vineyards Church Creek Steel Chardonnay is Virginia’s oyster wine.  Kissed by salty Bay breezes, the vines at Chatham Vineyards grow in soil atop the same watershed as the Nassawadox Creek.  Fermented and aged in steel, the melon, lemon, and saline flavors of this Chardonnay pair perfectly with the briny Nassawadox Salts from Shooting Point Oyster Company (located in Region 3 of the Virginia Oyster Trail) proving some truth in the culinary cliche, ‘what grows together goes together.’

The Williamsburg Winery 2016 Viognier ($28)
Williamsburg, williamsburgwinery.com
Another well-made, delicious wine from the Williamsburg Winery’s Wessex Hundred estate series. Made from 100% Viognier, the pear and peach notes pair nicely with the clean, creamy and slightly salty Big Island Oysters (regions 6 and 7), cultivated in Monday Creek, where the York River and Mobjack Bay meet the Chesapeake, just 25 miles east of where these grapes were grown.  The hints of mineral on the finish of the wine highlight the minerality of the Big Island Oysters.  (Link to article I wrote for the Wine & Brine Lounge featuring Bruce and Daniel Vogt, founders of Big Island Aquaculture.)

Linden Hardscrabble 2013 Chardonnay ($40)
Linden, lindenvineyards.com
Located about 65 miles west of Washington, DC, Linden Vineyards estate vineyard, Hardscrabble, is one of the most distinctive in the Commonwealth.  Virginia wine pioneer Jim Law purchased the property in 1983 and planted the Hardscrabble vineyard in 1985. Rich, textured, superbly balanced, offering notes of melon, light citrus, pear, and chalk, Hardscrabble Chardonnay pairs perfectly with sweet and creamy Fat ‘n Happy oysters cultivated in Little Wicomico River (Region 4), which stretches along the Virginia-Maryland border.  Hardscrabble Chardonnay is Law’s most important wine in my opinion; even better paired with local oysters.

Barboursville 2016 Fiano Reserve ($23)
Barboursville (Monticello), bbvwine.com
Fiano is an ancient Italian white grape variety grown primarily in the region of Campania (in the DOCG Fiano di Avellino) in southern Italy. It’s also cultivated on the island of Sicily, in parts of Australia, Argentina and… now in Virginia thanks to Barboursville winemaker Luca Paschina.  The Barboursville team planted 3.5 acres of Fiano at Barboursville in 2013. This 2016 is the second vintage release of the Fiano. The peach, lemon, honeycomb notes, and waxy texture of the Fiano paired nicely with the mild oysters from Pungoteague Creek in the upper Bay of the Eastern Shore (Region 2).

Thibaut-Janisson Xtra Brut (~$39)
Afton (Monticello), tjwinery.com
Fifth-generation winemaker from the Champagne region of France, Claude Thibaut is widely considered the Father of Virginia Sparkling Wine. Thibaut came to Virginia in 2003 to launch the sparkling wine program at Kluge Estate Winery (now Trump Winery).  Today, Thibaut has his own label, Thibaut-Janisson, and has a hand in producing many of the top sparkling wines in the Commonwealth.  Made from 100% Chardonnay grown in the Monticello AVA, about one-third of the juice was aged in oak. With just 4 grams of sugar per liter (i.e – extra brut), Xtra Brut is dry, offering notes of unripe pears, toasted hazelnuts, chalk and saline.  The salty oysters cultivated in the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach by oysterman Chris Ludford of Pleasure House Oysters are great with Thibaut’s Xtra Brut.

Ankida Ridge 2015 Chardonnay ($32)
Amherst County, ankidaridge.com
Made from grapes grown in the rich soils of Ankida Ridge at ~1,700 feet in elevation and grapes from a neighboring vineyard, this 2015 is one of the finest, most elegant Chardonnays in the region. Aged in 10% new oak, 90% neutral, the juice spent nine months on lies giving it a wonderful creaminess.  The pear, baked apple, chalky-stone notes and wonderful texture are great with oysters from the middle bay around Tangier Island.

Casanel Vineyards 2016 Rosé José ($24)
Leesburg (Loudoun County), casanelvineyards.com
Crisp, dry, refreshing rosé doesn’t get enough credit as a delicious pairing for oysters, especially briny oysters.  Of the many roses I tasted this summer with oysters (Yes, oysters every month! Forget that that silly maxim, ‘only eat oysters in months that have an r’), Rosé José from Casanel was one of my favorites.  Fresh, zippy, full of red berry notes, we paired this rosé with salty seaside Olde Salts (Region 1) from Rapphannock Oyster Company.  Though I prefer to slurp oysters straight with no condiments, this wine-oyster pairing was even better with a little raspberry mignonette.  Seriously delicious!  Casanel is one of those wineries that doesn’t receive deserved recognition (yet) for the quality of their wines. From the few wines I’ve tasted across several vintages, they have made leaps in quality and seem to have found a sweet spot for fantastic wines. Keep an eye on Casanel wines… and try this pairing.

Early Mountain Vineyards 2016 Five Forks White Blend ($25)
Madison, earlymountain.com
A blend of 47% Petit Manseng, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 13% Viognier, 5% Muscat, 5% Pinot Gris, this may be one of Virginia’s most versatile oyster wines.  The racy, fresh acidity of the Petit Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc and creamy texture of the Viognier pair nicely with the full range of oysters — sweet, salty, and or creamy.  When in doubt, reach for a bottle of this wine.

Blenheim Vineyards 2016 Albariño
Charlottesville, blenheimvineyards.com
Albariño is among a growing number of exciting varieties showing great promise in Virginia and one that is perfect with oysters (and pretty much all seafood).  Winemaker Kirsty Harmon has 1.5 acres of Albariño planted in the estate vineyard at Blenheim and 2016 is the first vintage for this seriously delicious zippy white wine.  A blend of 90% Albariño with 10% Viognier, the stone fruit and salty-citrus tang are elevated when paired with oysters of the middle Bay and Tangier Island and saltier oysters of the lower Bay.

North of our border, Maryland may be better known for blue crabs but is also home to a thriving (and very underrated) wine region.  I recently enjoyed wines from two of the most notable wineries in Maryland:

Big Cork Vineyards 2016 Sauvignon Blanc
Rohrersville, MD, bigcorkvineyards.com
Located in the Cumberland Valley of Maryland, about 70 miles northwest of Washington, DC, Big Cork Vineyards was co-founded by noted winemaker Dave Collins. Virginia wine fans may remember Collins for his 14 vintages crafting fine wines at Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville (Loudoun County).  Collins left Breaux in 2011 to establish Big Cork Vineyards and today farms about 30 acres of vines with plans to double the acreage.  One of my favorite wines from a recent visit is the racy 2016 Sauvignon Blanc (though the Cabernet Franc was my standout wine);  bright, zippy, fresh, with notes of lemon-lime and flint and bracing acidity; would pair nicely with the sweet-salty Rappahannock oysters and a citrus mignonette.  

Black Ankle Vineyards 2015 Chardonnay ($34)
Mount Airy, MD, blackankle.com
Located in Mount Airy, MD, about 50 miles north of Washington, DC, Black Ankle Vineyards was founded by Sarah O’Herron and Edward Boyce.  The former business consultants purchased the property in 2002, planted their initial vineyards in 2003 and 2004 (22 acres), harvested their first estate grapes in 2006, and released their first wine in 2008.  The Black Ankle 2015 Chardonnay is made from 100% estate-grown Chardonnay and was aged in French oak barrels for six months.  The tropical fruit and toasty notes with pear and mineral finish pair nicely with sweet and creamy oysters from Tangier Island (Region 8).  Oysters cultivated in the waters around Tangier are some of the most balanced, between saltiness, sweetness and buttery.  A balanced oyster needs a balanced wine like this Black Ankle Chardonnay.   

Oysters cultivated in local waterways paired with wines made from grapes grown in surrounding soils may be Virginia’s truest wine and food pairing.  

Get out on the Virginia oyster and wine trails for Virginia Oyster Month!  Checkout the Virginia Oyster Trail events page for oyster happenings throughout the Commonwealth in November.

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