Oysters, Wine & Pairing
There are 5 types of oysters:
Types of Oysters
- There are over 150 varieties of oysters harvested and sold in North America, yet they comprise a total of only 5 species of oysters. And although each species does have its general characteristics in regards to flavor, their “finishing touches” can be attributed more to their merroir (local habitat) than to their species. In this sense, oysters are much like fine wine…each one is distinctly different from each other as they take on the flavors indigenous to the regions and conditions under which they were grown.
Pacific Oysters – Crassostrea gigas
Pacific OysterAlternate Names: Japanese Oyster, Creuse (France), Miyagi
Examples: Penn Cove Select, Fanny Bay, Kusshi
- Although it is the most commonly cultivated oyster on the US Pacific Coast, they are not native to the region. Pacific oysters were brought to the US from the Asian Pacific in the early 1900’s, and introduced in France in the 1970’s and are now the world’s most cultivated oyster. Pacific’s have shells with naturally ruffled edges (if they aren’t tumbled) and are distinctly more fluted (elongated) than other oysters. Shell colors range from gray/green to vivid multi-colors of royal purple, gold and jade green.
- Although they have a wide spectrum of flavors, Pacific Oysters in general tend to have a sweeter, less briny taste than Atlantic Oysters. Common nuances of flavor include: varying degrees of brininess, creamy, herbaceous, melon (honeydew or watermelon rind), vegetal.
- Pacific’s grow quickly and many reach market size in about 18 months.
Kumamoto Oysters – Crassostrea sikamea
Kumamoto OysterAlternate Names: Kumi, Kumo
- Kumamoto’s are another import from Asia, Japan specifically. In 1947 Kumamoto oysters were introduced to Washington State as a substitution for Pacific Oysters which had been ordered from Japan. They were never popular in Japan, but are one of the very most popular oysters in the US.
- While Pacific and Atlantic oysters are widely cultivated in the US and are frequently named after the specific bay, river, or region they are cultivated in/near, Kumamoto oysters are so popular, so distinct, that they typically go simply by the name “Kumamoto Oyster”, although some establishments will include the area of harvest, such as “Kumamoto – Oakland Bay”. Primary cultivation areas include Baja California, Humboldt Bay, and Puget Sound. Not many farmers cultivate Kumamoto’s because they are a slow growing oyster and the seed is hard to come by. Because they spawn later, and in warmer waters, they are of good quality later into the summer than other oysters.
- Kumo’s are a small oyster (only the Olympia oyster is smaller), having deep bowl-like cups with nicely sculpted and fluted shells. They have a creamy or buttery texture with a sweet, mild, almost nutty flavor and a melon-like finish. Because of their mild, unintimidating flavor and small size they are the perfect oyster for beginners, yet still enjoyed by connoisseurs as well.
Atlantic Oysters – Crassostrea virginica
Atlantic OysterAlternate Names: Eastern Oyster, Virginica
Examples: Blue Point, Malpeque, Wellfleet
- Atlantic Oysters are the “great American oyster” and are naturally found along the North American Atlantic Coast from Canada southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Along with the Olympia Oyster, they are the only indigenous oyster found in North America.
- Atlantic oysters are distinctly different than Pacific oysters in that they tend to be larger, have a tear drop or paisley shape, smooth shells and uniform colors of brown, cream and forest green. Virginica’s are also more affected by water temperature than Pacific’s are. In the relatively warm waters of Virginia a farmer can bring a Virginica to market size in about 18 months (just like a Pacific). But in the frigid Nova Scotia waters it can take up to 4 years for a Virginica to reach market size.
- East Coast Oysters tend to be brinier than other oysters, with a crisp texture, clean flavor, a mineral accent and a savory finish. Northern Virginica’s tend to have a more intense brininess.
European Flat Oysters – Ostrea edulis
Belon OysterAlternate Names: Belon
Examples: Maine “Belon”
- Although many European Flats are frequently called Belons, they technically can only be called Belons if they are from the Brittany region of France near the Belon River. Thus, while all Belons are European Flats, not all European Flats are Belons.
- European Flats have smooth, round (saucer-like), flat shells with a shallow cup and seaweed-green color. You need to be a true oyster lover to enjoy them as they have the boldest of flavors in the oyster kingdom. They have a meaty, almost crunchy texture, with an intense mineral bite up front, a potent seaweed flavor, and a long-lasting gamey finish.
- Due to the potency of flavor, and the amount of over-harvesting of this species, it can be rather difficult to find. There are not many farmers cultivating it.
Olympia Oysters – Ostrea lurida /Ostrea conchapila
Olympia OysterAlternate Names: Oly
- Olympias are the only oyster indigenous to the US Pacific West Coast. They were so popular during the Gold Rush era that by the end of the 1800’s they were wiped out and for many years thought to be extinct. But some wild stock was eventually found in the Pacific Northwest and is now cultivated successfully by a few farmers.
- Although they are from the same family (Ostrea) as their larger cousin the European Flat, Olympia oysters are the smallest of all the species with the average diameter being somewhere between the size of a nickel and a quarter. They are a finicky oyster, hard to cultivate, and can take up to 4 years to reach the grand size of a quarter.
- Despite their diminutive size, Olympia oysters are potently flavorful, yet easier to approach than a European Flat. They have a creamy texture with strong flavors of sweet celery and bright copper with a long lasting metallic finish.
- Pacific Northwest Oyster Varieties
There are over 65 varieties of oysters available in the Pacific Northwest oyster appellations of British Columbia, Washington & Oregon. These include oysters from six major PNW oyster regions: Vancouver Island oysters from British Columbia; North Puget Sound oysters from Washington; Hood Canal oysters from Washington; South Puget Sound oysters from Washington; Washington Coast oysters and Oregon Coast oysters.
- Vancouver Island Oysters, British Columbia
- There are at least 20 varieties of oysters available in the British Columbia oyster appellation around Vancouver Island, BC. The entire region is one majestic view after another set against a backdrop of snow peaked mountains and ocean wild life in naturally carved fjords. British Columbia oysters grow in these cold, pristine fjords and inlets which are wild & unpolluted
- Click on photos to enlarge
- North Puget Sound Oysters
- There are at least 10 varieties of oysters available in the North Puget Sound oyster appellation of Washington State. This region covers the Puget Sound area from Port Townsend to Bellingham, WA. North Puget Sound oysters are from the most northern region of Washington State.
- Hood Canal Oysters
- There are at least 16 varieties of oysters available in the Hood Canal oyster appellation of Washington State. Hood Canal is a natural fjord which is one of four main water regions of Puget Sound. It’s waters are pristine and deep, being fed from the majestic Olympic Mountain range which gives Hood Canal oysters their fantastic flavor.
- South Puget Sound Oysters
- There are at least 17 varieties of oysters available in the South Puget Sound oyster appellation of Washington State. This region covers the Puget Sound area from Port Townsend to Bellingham, WA. South Puget Sound oysters are from the most northern region of Washington State.
- Wine & Oyster Pairings
- This marine taste of place brought together a panel of noteworthy experts, including Lissa James of Hama Hama Oyster Company of Hood Canal, WA and Marco Pinchot from Taylor Shellfish of Shelton, WA, presenting the oysters. A scrumptious selection of wines was presented by Giovanni Bonmartini-Fini of Barone Fini Winery of Trentino, Italy; Marco DiGiulio of The Girard Winery of Napa, CA; and Matt Mitchell of The Crossings Winery, all the way from Marlborough, New Zealand.
- What variety of wine goes with oysters you ask? Why a nice dry, fruity, yet subtle, white wine of course. The wines chosen for our tasting proved to be as delightful, yet dramatic, in character as the oysters themselves and each brought out the best in the other.
- Sauvignon Blanc Loves Oysters
- Traditionally oysters have often been paired with Sauvignon Blanc. We were offered two fine examples hailing from California’s Napa Valley and the South Island of New Zealand. The Girard Winery of California’s Russian River Valley presented a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc featuring a citrusy, slightly fruity bouquet with lemony notes and a hint of pineapple with a long smooth finish.
- John White Wine Glasses
- A dry, fruity, yet subtle, white wine enhances the flavor of oysters.
- This crisp Sauvignon Blanc was matched with the most popular oyster, the Kumamoto. This delicate oyster is noted for its two inch size, deep cups, green tinged pillowy look, delightfully sweet taste, and honeydew melon finish. Most Kumamotos in the Puget Sound, like the ones we sampled, are produced by Taylor Shellfish Company.
- In addition to California, New Zealand has emerged as a premier location for producing Sauvignon Blanc in the “classic” style. In the Marlborough region, marked by a cool climate and featuring a long growing season and sandy soil, winemakers craft concentrated and well-balanced wines. Surprisingly, very few of the New Zealand winemakers use oak, preferring to let the grapes stand on their own. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs often show more clean fruit flavors and are slightly less minerally.
- However, the similarities between these oaked and non-oaked styles are more noticeable than the differences. Cloudy Bay is the most famous representative of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but newer entries to the market, such as The Crossings Winery, often deliver remarkable taste and greater value.
- The Crossings 2011 Sauvignon Blanc Awatere Valley was paired with the Pacific oyster produced by Hama Hama Oyster Company. Pacific oysters typically feature a melony character that gives rise to a citrusy burst of grapefruit from the Sauvignon Blanc.
- Italian Wines and Olympias
- Italian wines pair well with oysters too. The Trentino/Alto Adige region of northern Italy produces a fine romance between the Barone Fini DOC Valdadige 2010 Pinot Grigio and the Olympia oyster of Totten Inlet, WA. The Olympia oyster is the only native to the West Coast and, surprisingly enough, never gets bigger than a quarter. These oysters are so tiny, it takes 250 to fill a pint jar. An “Oly” may be small, but this oyster is loaded with flavor, packing more punch than many of its larger neighbors.
- When an entire species of oyster is named for a single place like the Olympia, you can expect something special. Around Olympia, these lovely little oysters are still harvested by hand at low tide. You may be surprised to learn that oysters come from seed. And just like grapes, they are planted in dirt. Small wonder wines and oysters compliment each other so well.
- Like wines, different oysters exhibit different flavor characteristics. Pairing the right wine with a particular oyster enhances the flavor of both.
- The Pinot Grigio wines produced by the winemakers at Barone Fini are exceptional and pair well with seafood like oysters as well as with chocolate. With more than 500 years of winemaking heritage, Barone Fini is definitely doing something right. All of their fruit is produced on old vines and hand harvested. The result is a medium- to full-bodied, delicately flavored white wine featuring light citrus notes, presenting spicy ripe apples and pears, and finishing with long tones of mountain herbs. It makes the perfect accompaniment to the Olympia oyster’s unmistakably sweet, yet-metallic, celery-salt flavor.
- Chardonnay, Point aux Pins, and Pacific Oysters
- Next, a lovely 2009 Chardonnay from Girard’s Russian River Valley winery was paired with a large eastern Point aux Pins oyster from the Grand Bay of Alabama. The fleshy, fat, slightly smoky, and decidedly briny oyster is nicely countered by the rich and smooth Chardonnay. The wine offers bright notes of lemon and peach with a long, delicate, citrusy finish. Girard is an ambitious winery that is characterized by premier vineyard locations that results in producing high quality wines.
- New Zealand’s The Crossings 2009 Unoaked Chardonnay was also paired with a Pacific oyster, this one from Totten Inlet, WA. This large, fleshy oyster comes full of flavor with a sweet creamy texture. The deep algae-thick waters of the South Puget Sound’s Totten Inlet produce oysters with a rich seaweedy flavor. The Pacific oyster gets huge in these rich waters and many people believe the resulting oyster has the best combination of flavors. Taylor Shellfish Company is one of the largest oyster farms in Totten Inlet and is known for its meticulous quality.
- The Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island is recognized throughout the world as the source of quite stunning cool climate wines. The Awatere Valley winemakers produce grapes with intense fruit flavors and a delightful mineral note. The Crossings Unoaked Chardonnay springs from an enviable set of climactic conditions and the high sunshine and moderate temperatures in 2009 made it one of The Crossings’ best seasons. This delicious Chardonnay presents nice fruity apple and peach notes against a slight mineral background and a long smooth finish that proved perfect with Taylor Shellfish’s Pacific oyster.
- Pinot Grigio and Blue Pools
- The Blue Pool oyster from the Hama Hama River of Washington’s Hood Canal was paired with the delightful Barone Fini Alto Adige 2010 Pinot Grigio. Blue Pool oysters are tumbled to force them to develop deeply cupped shells that result in a tiny flavorful, fleshy, and briny oyster with a refined smoky flavor. The full-bodied Pinot Grigio balances out the briny, mineral flavor of the oyster with notes of citrus followed by spicy apple and flower hints with a balanced acidity and a long smooth finish.