As oyster lovers are already painfully aware, April traditionally marks the end of their slurping season. Until September, when months get their “r”s back, it’s advised not to eat bivalves. Some rewrite this rule, proclaiming it a vestige of the past, but if you’re a seasonal eater, you’ll want to wait until the fall, when the mollusks come in from colder waters, plump and succulent. If you plan to usher the season out with a few dozen on the half shell, you’ll need some suggestions for washing them down.
Chablis is the most classic (and expensive) of pairings. It’s made from 100 percent chardonnay, yet bears little resemblance to the prolific grape because of its unique terroir. Named for the northernmost region of Burgundy, France, where it’s made, Chablis sits on the Kimmeridgian chain—a huge Jurassic deposit of chalky marl and limestone covered with fossilized seashells—so the wines have a flinty minerality, salinity, and gravity not seen in the more inflated chardonnays from the New World. And because Chablis undergoes no malolactic fermentation (the process that converts sharp-tasting malic acid into buttery-tasting lactic acid) and rarely sees oak in its aging process, the clean, crisp, marine qualities come through razor sharp like they do in a raw oyster.
Traveling due west in France offers another natural pairing that comes at a fraction of Chablis’ cost. Muscadet, a $15 and under little number made from melon de Bourgogne grapes grown just miles from where the Loire River meets the Atlantic, has an acidity and brininess that’s as invigorating as the spray from crashing waves. When Muscadet’s aged sur lie (see Winespeak 101) for the six months prior to bottling, the wine gets a slippery mouthfeel just like those oysters (and its liquor) that slide down your throat.
If there was ever a time to enjoy oysters with a local drink, it would be at the Blue Ridge Oyster Festival Saturday, April 21 (see All You Can Eat, page 38), where oysters from Mobjack Bay join beers from Devils Backbone and Starr Hill Breweries and wines from Blenheim Vineyards and Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery.
While the typical beer paired with oysters is Irish-style dry stout because of its burnt barley flavor and smooth creamy texture, all beers make a happy coupling with the shellfish. A lager’s crisp carbonation, a wheat’s fruity yeastiness, and an IPA’s bitter hoppiness will provide a foil for the salty sea creatures. Besides, at an all-day outdoor festival, you’ll want to be drinking something lighter than stout.
Wine drinkers at the festival will get to choose from different colors and varietals from two different vineyards in two different counties. Albemarle County’s Blenheim Vineyards White Table Wine is a palate-refreshing blend of viognier and chardonnay that’s 100 percent stainless steel-fermented. It’s aromatic and crispy, but has enough weight to mimic the mouthfeel of the oysters. Looking ever so pretty in pink is the winery’s 2011 Rosé, which blends mourvèdre, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon into a Provençal-style rosé with enough spice and wild berry fruit to stand up to grilled oysters. The Red Table Wine debuts at the festival and is the ideal warm-weather red. Packed with juicy stone fruit flavors and accented with toasty notes from some oak aging, this blend of cabernet franc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon is as food- and festival-friendly as a red wine comes—especially if you’re opting for The Rock Barn’s dog and brats over the oysters.
Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery in Nelson County (which has its own oyster roast in November every year) is releasing the 2011 Chardonnay just in time for the festival. It’s got ample, ripe fruit like apple and pear, but is still lean enough to partner with raw oysters. The 2011 Rockfish Red, made from 100 percent cabernet franc, is a fresh and lively red with raspberry fruit and woodsy spices, perfect for the smokiness of oysters off the grill.
Whether you go the traditional route or the local route with your pairings, slurp it up this weekend. Casanova, that 18th century heartthrob, is said to have eaten 50 oysters for breakfast every morning to aid in his virility—and he never had to take the summer off.
Sur lie (adj.): A French term meaning, literally, “on the lees” referring to the aging of wines on the deposit of dead yeast that forms after primary fermentation. The method imparts a yeasty quality and enhances complexity.