Master sommelier and wine consultant John Szabo wants us to consider the oyster—as the perfect partner to whites from Ontario wine country. “This is the time of year that Canadian oysters fatten up for the winter,” explains the Wine Align critic. “And there’s just something magical about the brininess of the oysters and the crackling acidity and fruitiness of Ontario wines.” Here are the wine expert’s top selections—and a slew of tips for throwing the ultimate Canadian-oyster-and-Ontario-wine bash at home. They could also come in handy the next time you’re on the road and find yourself ordering oysters.
Coast to coast
With oysters in general, the gold standard is a dry, crisp, white wine with good acidity and not too much alcohol—with or without bubbles. But, since Pacific and Atlantic oysters are quite distinctive, you could also pick a couple of bottles: one for each Coast.
“Oysters from the Pacific side tend to be more intensely flavoured, creamy, meaty and vegetal,” says Szabo. “So, go for something with a little more body to match their intensity—even a lightly wood-aged wine.”
And on the East Coast, the oysters are typically more saline, mineral and meaty. “With those, I might go for an Ontario sparkling blanc de blanc or chardonnay, made in the champagne style,” says Szabo. “It works because it’s crisp, fresh and dry, and it has the added advantage of the bubbles, which make it more festive and lift the briny flavour of the oyster.”
If you want to go next level and serve an array of oysters with their own individually paired wines, these combos are Szabo-approved:
The oyster: Malpeque Premium, Malpeque Bay, P.E.I
The wine: Cave Spring Cellars 2014 CSV Riesling
The chemistry: “Malpeques are small, firm and briny—a classic East Coast choice. And the wine, a benchmark Ontario Riesling made from some of Canada’s oldest Riesling vines, is not quite bone dry—it has just a little pinch of sugar. The wine’s subtle sweetness and the saltiness of the brine bring out the best in one another.”
The oyster: Marina’s Top Drawer, Cortes Island, B.C.
The wine: Malivoire NV Bisous Brut Nature, VQA Beamsville Bench (winery only)
The chemistry: “The oysters have a deep cup and are mineral and firm, with a relatively intense flavour. And the sparkling wine (a Chardonnay-Pinot blend) is lean, sharp—also mineral—and totally bone dry. The saltiness of this oyster brings out the fruitiness of the wine—like putting a pinch of salty on your cantaloupe to make it more flavourful and fruity.”
The oyster: Village Bay Oyster, Richibucto, N.B.
The wine: Hidden Bench 2014 Roman’s Block Riesling, VQA Beamsville Bench
The chemistry: “Softer-fleshed, with a seaweedy, briny flavour, these oysters work well with this particularly mineral, single-vineyard Riesling. The oysters lessen the perception of the acidity in the wine, bringing out its fruitier side.”
The oyster: Kusshi, Denman Islands, B.C.
The wine: Thirty Bench 2014 Small Lot Riesling ‘Steel Post,’ VQA Beamsville Bench
The chemistry: “This is a creamy and meaty oyster with a slightly sweet finish and a beautiful frilly shell. In this pairing, it turns pleasantly grassy, with melon and cucumber notes—the Riesling makes the oyster a more intense version of itself.”
The oyster: La Verte Small Choice, Chippigan, N.B.
The wine: Trius Brut, VQA, Niagara
The chemistry: “Oyster beginners will love this delicately flavoured gateway oyster, as it’s pleasantly briny, but not too intense. The Trius gains in length when paired with it and the wine’s biscuity flavours are enhanced, too.”
Szabo’s parting party tips
* Hire a shucker, unless you’re experienced. The last thing you want to do is spend the whole night sticking a knife into a shell. And if you’ve had a couple of drinks—one slip can ruin your evening.
* If you want to do it yourself, grab the oyster in a thick cloth, so you’re protected if there’s a slip. And sign up for learn-to-shuck sessions in advance of your party.
* Don’t buy your oysters pre-shucked, because you’ll lose the beautiful oyster liquor (briny water pooled inside the shell). Oysters should really be eaten within a few minutes of being shucked.
* You lose the subtlety of the oyster if you whack on a whole load of mignonette. If the point is to enjoy the wine pairings, I recommend being a purist and simply serving wedges of lemon on the side, and horseradish, if you must.
* Bulk out the offerings with crusty bread and unsalted butter—there’s enough salt in the oysters to forego it in the fat.
* Have crushed ice on hand—or fresh snow—to keep the oysters chilled. Rest them in their half shells on a bed of ice to keep them nice and cold.
* If you want to get fancy, decorate the plate with kelp—just ask your fishmonger to include some with the oysters.
* For the playlist, go with 70s soul, so you’ve got these light, dancing fresh flavours of wine and oysters and this beautiful heavy soul music in the background: a pairing of contrasts.