I tried an oyster once. It tasted like a dirty aquarium. And I’m pretty sure it tried to crawl back up my throat. People eat these things? On purpose??
Fast forward 20 years. I tried another oyster. It had everything to do with a pile of peer pressure, and a couple of glasses of wine (I’m brave after a couple of glasses of wine). I braced for another dirty aquarium moment. But to my surprise, I loved it!! It tasted like clean, briny bliss. I cannot believe I’ve been missing out on these guys for so long. I have so much oyster time to make up for.
Virginia is now the Oyster Capital of the East Coast, featuring eight oyster regions, each producing a very different and distinctive tasting oyster. November was Virginia Oyster Month, and I had an opportunity to attend the 40th Virginia Wine Chat held at Williamsbug Winery, starring Virginia wine paired with Virginia oysters.
Our Cast of Characters (L to R):
- Frank Morgan, author of Drink What You Like and founder of the Virginia Wine Chat.
- Tommy Leggett of York River Oysters.
- Daniel and Bruce Vogt of Big Island Aquaculture.
- Bernie Murphy of Rappahannock Oyster Company.
- Matthew Meyer, winemaker at Williamsburg Winery.
Bearing in mind that I’m an oyster neophyte, here are some new-to-me things I learned about oysters:
- You can ship oysters. Seriously. I had no idea. Guess what all the oyster lovers in my family are getting for Christmas this year??
- The only species of oyster permitted for aquaculture in Virginia is Crassostrea virginica. Although the species is identical, each oyster will vary in taste by salinity, creaminess, and sweetness. (Check out this Guide to the Flavors of Virginia Oysters).
- Oysters take on the flavor(s) of the waters in which they’re grown (as a function of the water’s salt and mineral content). Oyster folks call this Merroir.
- Virginia has an Oyster Trail. Just like a wine trail, but with bivalves.
- It takes two years to grown an oyster!
- The adage about only eating oysters in months ending in ‘R’ is bunk. You can eat and enjoy oysters year round.
- Oysters are environmental heroes. One oyster filters between 40 and 50 gallons of water EVERY day.
- A group of oysters is called a bed or a reef. Oyster reefs provide a natural habitat for scores of marine life.
- Oyster aquaculture is completely sustainable.
- You’re supposed to chew an oyster a couple of times before you swallow it. You can’t taste it if you don’t chew it!
Pairing #1: Rappahannock River Oysters with Vintage 2015 Reserve Chardonnay
Originally founded in 1899, the Rappahannock Oyster Company ceased operations in 1991, with the death of founder, William Arthur Croxton. Operations were relaunched in 2001 by Croxton cousins, Ryan and Travis Croxton.
Rappahannock River oysters are officially part of Region 5, the Middle Bay Western Shore. Their oysters are known for being low in salinity, sweet and buttery.
According to Rappahannock oyster rep, Bernie Murphy, “with our oysters, you really taste the animal.” Quote of the night!
Williamsburg Winery winemaker, Matthew Meyer, started his career in Napa Valley, but came to Virginia over a decade ago, convinced of the potential for Virginia vines and wines. Meyer says, “the wines are more honest and true to their roots here.” Williamsburg Winery’s 2010 Adagio (a Bordeaux-style red blend) won top honors at the 2014 Virginia Governor’s Cup. Potential, indeed.
Vintage Reserve Chardonnay 2015
Williamsburg Winery does not produce a vintage reserve Chardonnay every year. In fact, the last time Williamsburg Winery made this wine was in 2010. 100% Chardonnay, aged in 72% New French Oak, and 28% in a concrete egg (this allows for oxygenation similar to oak barrels, without the oak flavor). Meyer informed us that this wine underwent a 30% malolactic fermentation, “so it doesn’t get that nasty popcorn butter flavor”.
Nope, no nasty popcorn butter in my glass. Very tropical with flavors of pineapple, butterscotch, apple, pear and cherimoya. And a sizzle of acidity to balance out all those layers of fruit. 11.6% ABV. Retail = $32.
Pairing #2: Tommy Leggett’s York River Oysters with the 2015 Wessex Hundred Viognier.
York River Oysters is a small, family owned operation. Owner, Tommy Leggett, wears all the hats — he’s the oysterman, marketer, accountant, boat maintenance guy, and deliveryman. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. He craves the solitary independence of being on the water.
Formerly the head of the Oyster Recovery Project for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Tommy has been key to the resurgence of the Virginia oyster industry. York River Oysters (Region 6, Lower Bay Western Shore) are known for their moderate salinity, and sweet, buttery taste.
2015 Wessex Hundred Viognier
100% estate-grown Viognier. Aged in neutral French Oak barrels, a concrete egg named Sheldon, and stainless steel. I’m officially on a break from Viognier, but since there’s a glass in front of me . . . this one is very tropical. Loads of pineapple, banana and mango notes. But, there’s enough acidity to maintain balance and elegance. 12.8% ABV. Retail = $24.
Meyer says he’s not a huge proponent of terroir. Me? I’m a terroirist. Too often, I will visit a Virginia winery and hear a common refrain: We’re the Bordeaux of the New World. It’s all I can do to chomp on my tongue. No, you’re not. Bordeaux is Bordeaux. Virginia is Virginia. Embrace it.
Pairing #3: Big Island Aquaculture Oysters paired with 2015 Midsummer Night’s White
Founded in 1989 by father and son Bruce and Daniel Vogt, Big Island Aquaculture’s approach to farming is unique — they float their oyster beds in bags, keeping them off the bottom of the river. With this method, the oysters grow faster than in a bottom cage (although there is more labor involved), but the end result is an oyster that’s clean and blissfully sand/mud-free.
Big Island Oysters straddle Regions 6 and 7 (Lower Bay Western Shore and Tidewater). And out of the three different oysters we tasted, Big Island oysters are the ones that surprised me the most. They have an almost meaty texture — not slippery at all, grippy, even. Saltier for sure, but multi-dimensional. Creamy and sweet.
Midsummer Night’s White 2015
51% Traminette, 43% Vidal Blanc, 6% Viognier. Aged in stainless steel. Traminette is a cross between the French-American hybrid Joannes Seyve 23.416 (named for the French guy who created the grape) and Gewürztraminer. I’m not sure what Joannes Seyvre 23.416 tastes like, but I’m guessing rather milquetoast. Gewürztraminer is the dominant in this relationship. It practically screams, Pick me! Taste me! Love me!
Highly floral, with peach, pear, apricot and orange notes. And there’s that tropical Viognier pineapple. The Vidal Blanc brings some acid into this threesome, balancing the residual sugar with some bright lemon and grapefruit. 12.4% ABV. Retail = $14.
I only spent an hour with these watermen and winemaker, but by the end of that hour, it was abundantly evident — these folks are a genuine lot, united by their commitment to water and land. And whether their calling is for the vine or the bivalve, they share a passion for growing something that sustains us all.