More Culinary Wine Adventures...

More Culinary Wine Adventures...
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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Big, fat chardonnays make a splash with food

In a 1999 issue of Decanter – the UK publication that bills itself as "The World's Best Wine Magazine" – there was an interesting story done on two separate tastings involving the exact same lineup of California and French grown chardonnays. One tasting took place in New York City with a panel of American experts, and the other in London with some well known British experts.

The two panels met at the exact same time (although the Brits tasted five hours earlier due to the time difference), but the results were, not surprisingly, divergent. The British experts, who are accustomed to the taste of French wines, rated a 1996 Beaune Clos des Mouches by Joseph Drouhin – a full, refined, smoky, minerally, lemony edged wine – first. The American experts, who are more accustomed to the taste of California wines, rated the Beaune Clos des Mouches ninth out of ten.

The Americans’ top choice, on the other hand, was a 1997 Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch from Napa Valley -- a big, thick, opulent chardonnay, with almost a tropical fruit intensity. The British experts rated the Shafer a mere seventh out of ten. One American judge described the Shafer as "exotic, but not over the top," whereas a Brit described it as having "no subtlety, too much of everything... a Pamela Anderson wine.”

That two groups of people should have different tastes in wine comes as no surprise. But as an observer on the sideline, what I found surprising was the somewhat narrow perspective evident in comments from both sides, which I always find disappointing when it comes to "experts.”

One of the British judges, for instance, commented that he'd hoped to find a range of California chardonnays that “have moved on since the old days of no acidity or zip." Acidity, schmidity – who cares? Everyone knows that California chardonnays – even ones from cooler climate regions like Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara – have never really been about acidity; but rather, about rich, round, textured, even opulent fruitiness. What about more catholic, simpler, meaningful standards, like: does the wine taste good? Is it pleasingly smooth, impressively flavorful? This is, after all, how people who actually drink chardonnay would rate them -- how much they taste like California chard, not French or anything else.

In another instance, one American taster, reflecting on the British opinion that these full sized California chardonnays are not particularly food-friendly, exclaimed: "Hey, I don't think any of us want to go home and drink these either!" Of course, if I was going home to eat spaghetti and meatballs, I wouldn’t want to drink chardonnay; and neither would I care for a fine, crisp white Burgundy. Come to think of it, tart edged New Zealand sauvignon blancs do not go with every dish; and neither do Germany's rieslings, grand crus Bordeaux, Italy’s Supertuscans, or any other “great” wines of the world.

The point being: like it or not, great California chardonnay has now long been, almost by definition, something very full in alcohol (at least 13% or even 14%), and filled out with enormously intense, juicy apple or pineapple-like fruitiness. Neither are they shy in the creamy, vanillin, toasted and/or smoky oak department. This may be hard for judges of continental taste to swallow, but it certainly isn’t for the huge number of California chardonnay drinkers around the world!

So let’s talk chardonnay for what it is, not what we wish it were. Like the perception, according to many wine geeks today, that it is not much of a “food wine.” Nonsense.

I’m sorry, but anyone who says chardonnay doesn’t match food just doesn’t understand food or wine. Sure, unlike other varietal type wines – like sauvignon blanc, riesling and grüner veltliner – chardonnay tends to be bigger, fatter, oakier, and lower in acidity. But there are plenty of dishes that actually taste better with wines that are bigger, oakier and lower in acidity. Dishes that make a French Chablis, sauvignon blanc, riesling and grüner veltliner taste weak and puny, lean and mean.

Let’s cut to the chase and share some guidelines when cooking to match chardonnays:
  • Look for fleshier white meats (from deep sea fish and lobster to game birds, pork, veal and sweetbreads); and if the meat isn’t replete with its own natural fats and juices, prepare it with sensations of similarity with the use of butters, oils (ever try it with truffled popcorn?), creams or mild aiolis.
  • It’s also a good idea to balance these meats with moderate use of contrasting ingredients such as lemon (acidity), mustards, garlic, and all varieties of mushroom (earth tones), and fresh vegetables (like corn and carrot), fruit (peach and apple), or caramelized onions (touches of sweetness) and perhaps smoked white sausages or bacon.
  • Playing up smoky oak qualities by wood grilling, smoking or slow roasting, and use of toasted nuts (like pistachio, sesame seeds and pine nuts) is not such a bad idea.
  • Accenting chardonnay fruitiness with flatteringly scented herbs (especially chives, sweet basil, parsley, and more moderately, dill, sage, tarragon and rosemary) also does the trick.
  • Moderately soft, milky cheeses like Havarti, young Goudas, most Mozzarellas, Bricks and crèmes are delicious with the biggest, fattiest, oakiest chardonnays; and so incorporating such ingredients into dishes is another crafty thing to do.
What shouldn’t you do when cooking for chardonnay? Just as a glass of orange juice or a dollop of ketchup is not ideal on a scoop of sweet, creamy ice cream, use of sharp ingredients like vinegars, sauerkraut or raw tomato, more lethally scented seasonings like ginger, cilantro, kaffir lime or raw garlic, salty tastes like shoyu and salted fish, and hot tastes like curries and chili pastes, are all likely to take the stuffing right out of an intense chardonnay’s generously oaked, high alcohol fruitiness, making the wine taste flabby, paper-dry or bitter, and the dishes themselves too acidic, salty, fiery, or just plain weird.

In other words, aggressive fusion style dishes, or even traditionally soured, salted or chili spiced foods, are not chardonnay’s forte, and you shouldn’t ask it to be. The same when it comes to pastas in zesty tomato sauce, vinegary salads and seviches, hot sour soups and barbecues – don't expect chardonnay to go where it doesn't belong.

Finally, although ideal chardonnay matches fall fabulously into the realm of “other white meats,” I see nothing wrong with the enjoyment of this wine with leaner cuts of beef (like filet sizzling rare in a heart stopping pool of butter); or with use of thin strips of beef or even lamb in the Asian tradition (like classic tataki with cucumbers and chiso), providing the use of excessively salty, sour or hot ingredients is restrained. Especially if that is what you like.

Over the years I have compiled a list of favorite, tried-and-true matches for chardonnay; dishes that harness the wine’s gleeful girth of fruit, smoke, and creamy or buttery textures to delicious effect. Not surprisingly, many of these dishes involve butter. If only for that reason, you gotta love’em even if you don’t normally drink chardonnay.

Chardonnay matches we have known and loved

Listed along with their original sources or inspirations, the following ideas should give you plenty enough ammunition to do your own thing in the kitchen:
  • Julia Child’s veal with mushrooms and cream
  • Julia Child’s sweetbreads sautéed in butter
  • Harvey Steiman’s veal osso buco in dill chardonnay jus
  • John Ash’s wild mushrooms sautéed in fennel butter sauce
  • Chris Gesualdi’s herb crusted moonfish with summer vegetables in lobster coral butter
  • Roy Yamaguchi’s seared mahi mahi in roasted macadamia nut lobster butter sauce
  • Richard Olney’s truffled white sausage sausage with pistachios and court-bouillon
  • Cory Schreiber’s seared salmon in sweet corn broth with leeks and chanterelles
  • David Rosengarten’s grilled snapper with roasted sweet pepper, tropical fruit and cilantro salsa
  • My own homemade burrito with smoked mozzarella and kalua pig (woodsmoked Hawaiian style pulled pork) and lomi lomi style pico de gallo ("chop chop" tomato/green onion salsa)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Wine & cheese matching demystified (without removing the mystique)

For once, let’s talk about wine and cheese matching from the perspective that matters: the interaction of tart, salty, sweet, bitter and umami sensations in both wines and cheeses when they are tasted together, along with the notes of similarity and contrast that you find in the flavors and textures.

When you sit down and conscientiously examine the sensory components of, say, six different cheeses and six different wines, you invariably find several things:
  • There are probably more cheeses that taste better with white wine than with red, despite the old adage that red wines and cheese are as natural as red wines with red meats.
  • Cheeses, of course, give milky and acidic sensations – hence, the common choices between white wines varying from soft, creamy textures to sharper, acid edged qualities – but in the firmer, longer aged, deeper colored and richer flavored cheeses, factors like elevated saltiness and amino acids tend to come into play, necessitating movement towards either red wines (since unlike white wines, reds are fermented with their skins, automatically giving them deeper flavors, along with oak qualities from barrel aging that match easily with caramelized sensations in aged cheeses) or sweet wines (since high salt content is more easily balanced by sweetness).
  • Accentuated amino acids in cheeses essentially give them stronger umami components (which is why cheeses like Parmigiano, Manchego and Cheddars are often grated for usage as food condiments – essentially serving the purpose of intensifying flavors in dishes), which are generally more friendly to red wines than to whites.
  • Earthy, organic aromas and flavors in cheeses (particularly those made from sheep or goat’s milk, or else most variations of raw milk cheeses) like to find notes of similarity in wines of parallel qualities – be it the grassiness of Sauvignon Blanc, the flintiness of Riesling, stoniness of Chardonnays, the mushroomy/foresty notes of Pinot Noirs, all the way to the meaty, even gamy or leathery notes of reds from places like Bordeaux, Rioja and Piemonte and Southern France.
  • Once you get into the grand tradition of doctored cheeses – i.e. herb crusted Chèvres, peppercorned crèmes, cider washed rinds, stout soaked Cheddars, or even truffled Boschettos – the gloves come off, and all the varieties of red and white wines criss-cross in accordance to the dominant flavors that are added. For instance, it makes sense that cheeses coated in black pepper strike partnerships with peppery wines like California Zinfandels and Syrahs from around the world. Italianate herbs (i.e. rosemary, oregano, basil, etc.) will find matches with wines of Italian orientation (like those made from Sangiovese and Nebbiolo). High umami, truffled cheeses practically scream for high umami wines like Pinot Noir, or certain types of Chardonnay (re white Burgundy).
… and so it goes.

Like wine, cheese is the product of natural fermentations; and so like the great wines of the world, cheeses have become identified with specific regions of origin: Stilton from England, Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy, and Roquefort and Époisses de Bourgogne from France, just like Rioja from Spain, Chianti from Italy, and Bordeaux and Bourgogne from France. Therefore, the easiest wine/cheese matches of the world are regional; although where it really gets adventurous are the matches of New World cheeses that riff off the Old World, mixed and matched with wines from both the New and Old World.

Finally, the relationship between wine and cheese is not just natural and historical, it is also sensory to the point of mysticism: you don’t have to fully understand it to know it works. Certain wines are likely to taste better when consumed with the lush, solidified combinations of milky sensations, acids, salt and amino acids in certain cheeses. Vice versa, the alcohol, acidity, sugar and tannin of certain wines not only helps the palate break down and digest the sensory components of certain cheeses, a well chosen wine can bring out distinctive, subtle flavors in a cheese otherwise not noticed without the wine.

So what are the best wine and cheese combinations? “Bests” don’t exist, but there certainly are a lot of matches that simply make sense. The subject of wine and cheese, of course, has been tackled in many places, and my own conclusions are based upon tastings upon tastings over the years, with small groups of friends, one, two, sometimes as many as a dozen at a time.

residents, Persimmon Creek Vineyards, Georgia

Some of my favorites:

Chèvre (French or Regional American)
Goat’s milk cheese is made everywhere in the world, but the historical match is Loire River Chèvre with the white wines vinified purely from Loire River grown Sauvignon Blanc. Combining Chèvre and Sauvignon Blanc is like a lesson in Wine/Food Matching 101: a mingling of sensory similarities – the lemony acidity of the grape balancing the sharply acidic taste of goat’s milk, and earthy flavor of Chèvre amplified by the minerally, often flinty and herbal taste of Sauvignon Blanc.

Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are the Loire’s best known Sauvignon Blanc producing appellations, but you may find even better matches in lesser known, idiosyncratic growths such the strongly earthy whites of Cheverny, the citrusy light taste of Quincy, and the tart/silk juxtapositions found in Menetou-Salon.

Needless to say, Sauvignon Blancs and goat cheeses are made all over the world, and the combination generally works across the board, often with serendipity. I find, for instance, handcrafted Chèvres from Tennessee, Georgia, California and the Big Island of Hawaii to be generally milder in acidity and earth tones than French Chèvres like Valencay and Crottin de Chavignol, yet almost perfect with the more mildly acidic, floral and fruit driven Sauvignon Blancs of, say, California. For the fruity yet more strongly herbal style of Sauvignon Blanc grown in New Zealand, you can take your pick: French Chèvres tend to do a better job of rounding out the tart, green qualities of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but domestic Chèvres tend to delineate the fruity, often mildly sweet qualities of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.

Herbed or Peppered Chèvres (U.S.)
The ever-popular variations of Chèvres – coated with everything from cracked black pepper (Laura Chenel’s classic Peppered Chèvre) to earthy red peppers (Bonnie Blue’s Southwest Chèvre), and from pungent Italian herbs (rosemary, oregano and dried garlic) to fragrant variations of “French” mixtures (thyme, marjoram, basil, rosemary, sage, bay, lavender, et al.) – drastically alter your choice of wine. Cultural matches – Chianti Classico, Montepulciano or Montalcinos with Italian herbed Chèvres, and Bourgogne Rouge, Pinot Noir or Chinon with French herbed Chèvres – are both logical and spot-on. With peppers, it can be even more fun: what can be more predictably delicious with black peppercorn goat cheeses than black peppery California Petite Sirahs or Zinfandels? With pungent, earthy Southwest style red chile coated cheeses, peppery yet perfumed Syrahs from anywhere in the world?

Feta (Greece)
Although we do not really sit down with plates of plain Feta, we use this quiveringly soft, briny, earthy goat’s milk cheese often enough in our dishes to consider the sensory ramifications of its pointedly sharp and salty taste. As with any food high in acidity and saltiness, the natural matches are wines with moderate degrees of residual sugar and/or fruitiness. Off-dry Rieslings (particularly zesty Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Kabinetts) and Chenin Blanc based Loire River whites (Vouvray for fruitiness, Savennières for dryness) are the easy ones; although since many New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as well as Pinot Gris bottlings are finished with whispers of residual sugar, they do a surprisingly good job as well of rounding out the tart, salty taste of Feta.


Here’s a match rarely entering the minds of wine and cheese lovers. Whereas Chèvres are tart and earthy, Havarti is soft, creamy, almost sweet and springy with fruitiness – a natural with most California grown styles of Chardonnay precisely because of their creamy, lower acid, soft, almost sweet, springy, fruitiness.

Bufala Mozzarella (Italy)
By itself, this soft, round cheese, packed in its own liquified whey – at their best, enjoyed within days after production – invites any soft, round, fruity white of low to moderate acidity. Pinot Grigio and Frascati are naturals, but so are most Chardonnays from around the world.

Smoked Mozzarella (Italy)
For me, the smoky variations of Mozzarella positively scream for round, fruit driven Chardonnays fermented and aged in distinctively toasted barrels. Char on char, like blonde on blonde; wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Yet while sharper on the palate, the flinty qualities of French grown Sauvignon Blancs always mix and mingle easily with the smoky flavors of this style of Mozzarella; the wine’s acidity accentuating the cheese’s fresh, milky flavor and texture with contrast rather than similarity.

Charolais (France)
This product of Burgundy a slightly salty, tart cow/goat’s milk cheese that definitely calls for lightly tart dry whites meant to be enjoyed young and fresh rather than round and mature. The traditional matches are Mâcon or Pouilly-Fuissé, although from the Loire, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, or better yet, Menetou-Salon may also answer the call.

Tomme du Berger (France)
From Provence, this cheese is a pungent mix of sheep and goat’s milk; somewhat earthy in a saline sense, with a mild sharpness, slight chew around the edges and semi-soft in the middle. White wines that combine these multi-faceted qualities – crisp dryness, and lush fruit punctuated by mildly sharp acidity – make the most seamless matches. An easy regional match might be a Cassis blanc (like the famous Clos Ste. Magdeleine); or from South-West France, the little known Tursan by Baron de Bachen. But better known are any number of the great Rieslings from France’s Alsace; although a good case for either Alsatian grown Pinot Gris (highlights oily, earth tones in Tomme) or Gewürztraminer (a wine of milder acidity, but brings out spice notes in the cheese) can also be made. In this sense, Oregon Pinot Gris would also work out fine.

Brie & Camembert (France)
I’ve found that cheese and wine lovers are willing to go in at least three different directions with these lush, pungent, often fickle soft ripened cheeses: Fruity New World Chardonnays match the soft, buttery texture of these cheeses; whereas stonier, terroir driven Old World Chardonnays (from Burgundy as well as South Africa) round out both the creamy and earthy notes of these cheeses. Sauvignon Blancs (from anywhere in the world), on the other hand, offer the minerally/herbal notes to moderate the earthy, ammonia-like notes of Bries and Camemberts, on top of a sharply contrasting acidity that freshens the palate, keeping the runny, buttery taste of Bries and Camemberts from tiring the senses.

Gouda, Smoked Gouda & Super-Aged Gouda (Netherlands)
From the Dutch city of Gouda, this famous cheese is firm yet creamy in texture, developing a crunchy (from protein crystals), caramel-like sweetness as well as faintly nutty, mushroom-like notes well before it hits the market. Fruity California Chardonnays are an easy match; the sweet vanillin, French oak notes manufactured by more serious producers made all the more lush and textured by the cheese. But an even better match may be the Chardonnay based whites of France with Smoked Gouda. And it doesn’t have to be high priced Meursaults or Montrachets, because moderately scaled appellations like Petit Chablis, Saint-Aubin, Mâcon and Pouilly-Fuissé do a perfectly fine job of bringing out the nutty, earthy nuances of Smoked Gouda.

But once you get into the super-aged Goudas – like the Beemster Classic Extra Aged (18 months) or X.O. Extra Double Aged (26 months) – you start to veer off into red wine territory, since red wines are deeper in flavor than whites, and super-aged Goudas takes on deeper, butterscotchy, vanilla roasted pecan flavors. One step beyond full bodied whites are the reds of Beaujolais; and grand cru growths of the region – like Morgon, Chénas and Moulin-à-Vent – certainly have a red wine’s depth of flavor, underpinned by softer tannins of the Gamay Noir grape, to round out the taste of richer Gouda. I’ve also had the great success with soft but full, sweet fruit forward reds such as Zinfandels grown in Lodi (like St. Amant’s or Jesse’s Grove’s) or Contra Costa (by Carol Shelton or Rosenblum), although the super-plump reds from Spain’s Priorat on Montsant also fit this description.

Triple Crème (France)
Here begins a life of decadence; at least for me, having always been enthralled by how well some of the biggest, oakiest, and correspondingly most expensive California Chardonnays match with the richest and most lavish of soft ripened cheeses – Triple Crèmes such as the plump, white crusted Brillat-Savarin, the high octane Boursault, or the lush, sensual Explorateur. In this case, these over-the-top cheeses (defined by its having at least 75% butterfat) merely share the similar excess of rich, fat creaminess that make Chardonnays so attractive, yet are just mild enough in flavor to allow the sweet apple-like fruitiness of the grape shine on through.

Others will swear by Champagne, since there’s often a faintly sour note to Triple Crèmes like Brillat-Savarin; but if that’s the case, rather that super-dry, tart edged Bruts, I suggest softer, sleeker styles of Champagne like Blanc de Blancs (think Pol Roger or Taittinger from France, Iron Horse or Schramsberg from California).


The intrinsic spiciness of classic Pinot Noirs is absolute dynamite with one of the most flavorful of world’s seasoned cheeses: ultra-creamy, snowy white Boursin from France’s Normandy region. Boursin comes in two flavors – Garlic & Fine Herbs, and Pepper. I particularly like the lush, fruit forward, sweetly perfumed styles of American grown Pinot Noirs for the pungently herbed, peppery tastes of these cheeses; while Boursin is the only cheese I know with the softness to match the lush yet snappy texture of American grown Pinot Noirs, yet retain the intensity of flavor to consistently smooth out the any excess tannin while amplifying the grape’s fragrant complexities.

Manchego (Spain)
Once fromagers begin aging their products for six months or longer, cheeses such as the sheep’s milk Manchego become deeper, firmer and more complex in umami driven sensations: essentially becoming cheeses for red wines, given the depth derived during red wine production (i.e. fermentation with skins and longer aging processes). Fresh, tangy, yet mature, mildly salty, faintly sweet, crunchy Manchego is one cheese that adapts to almost any red of medium to high tannin, lower acidity and some degree of wood aging. In this sense, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Bordeaux style blends will seldom be difficult matches, although Manchego does have a tendency to take a little stuffing out of of slightly sharper, more lightly pigmented reds like Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and some of the simpler Sangiovese based wines of Tuscany.

Parmigiano-Reggiano (Italy)
Because of its high amino acids, we usually think of Parmigiano as more of a condiment than an eating cheese; which is a shame, because there is nothing like shavings of Parmigiano with glasses of deep, sturdy, aggressively oak aged reds made from any of the Bordeaux varieties (Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon) bottled as varietals or blends. Of course, deeper, denser Tuscan reds such as Brunello respond readily to the deep, fruity/nutty, crystallized taste of Parmigiano, which brings out a sweetness of oak and tannin laden wines not otherwise perceived by the palate. The Italians themselves, as it were, are fond of serving Parmigiano -Reggiano with the light, lithe, lively sparkling wines of Veneto called Prosecco; in which case, you'll find similarities of textures (the crunch of the cheese, the crispness of the sparklers) and sweetness (the whispers of sweetness in Prosecco coaxing out the sweet crystal taste of the cheese). Big red, light sparkler... it's all good.

Cheddars (International)
Practically all the world’s great aged Cheddars – from English Farmhouse to Canadian Diamond, and domestics like the Sharps of Vermont and Tillamook in Oregon – possess even firmer, tangier, but also deeper caramelized butter flavors that do amazing jobs of smoothing out the rough, boisterous edges of young to middle aged reds manufactured from Cabernet Sauvignon and other high extract, generous tannin grapes. By the same token, the sharp, saturated taste of many Cheddars may smother the nuances of the same reds if well matured (cellared fifteen years or longer), but how many of us are actually drinking this on a regular basis anyway?

Blue Cheeses (International)
Generally speaking, the salty, sharp, and yes, moldy, taste of the great blue veined cheeses of the world respond best to the great sweet wines of the world – easy as pie, and as pleasing as pineapple sauce on a ham. After that, the preferences become personal. Many swear by French Sauternes with France’s ewe’s milk Roquefort (most other blue cheeses are made from cow’s milk), although I like the somewhat rounder, smoother, nevertheless rich and tangy blue cheese quality of Iowa’s Maytag Blue and Rogue Creamery's Oregon Blue even better with these golden, full bodied blends of late picked Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Denmark’s Danablu is just as silky as the aforementioned, but my instinct is to pull out a zestier, flowery, dried apricot-like late harvest Riesling (German, Californian, or Australasian) rather than a Sauternes to match its somewhat sharp, briny bite. The Brits reach for a well aged Vintage or Tawny Port when they unwrap their Stilton – magnificently deep, creamy, yet “mellow” in its blue-cheesiness – although I have been surprised by how equal to the match with fortified reds Italy’s Gorgonzola can be, for all its mild, buttery, crumbly sensations.

In fact, Gorgonzola with more moderately alcoholic, lusciously sweet reds such as Italy's Recioto di Valpolicella, Banyuls from France, and the occasionally seen Late Harvest Zinfandels from California are all surprisingly effortless matches.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The state of Syrah, its ideal food matches, and a short list of inspiring American producers

Since the beginning of the year (2009) I’ve made no less than four extended passes through the West Coast, and one of the most significant things that I have found is this: the West Coast makes kick-butt syrah. I mean, not just a handful of significant syrahs, but an entire Sgt. Pepper’s bandwagon of them. Gloriously rich, complex, inspiring, soaring syrahs – everything a wine lover, any wine lover, would want.

Yet, in how many places are you hearing people say, with palpitating enthusiasm, that American grown syrahs have reached exalted levels – which they most certainly have – in the same way chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons did in the wake of the Judgement of Paris way back when, before our kids were born, or pinot noirs in the days before and after “that movie?”

It’s such a shame: that the dramatically ascendant quality of California, Washington and (especially) Oregon syrahs has been met with a collective yawn.

Invariably, this brings up talk of sales. It’s being said that American syrah, as an ultra-premium wine category, has been stuck in the doldrums. I can see why: most certainly during the past year, the action has been in the $10-$25 retail price range, and consumers still buying in the $25 and up categories (where the highest quality syrahs reside) have a huge number of extraordinary wines to choose from, made from every grape imaginable, coming from every part of the world.

When times are tough, and people are buying less, it only makes sense that they stick mostly to what they like: Bordeaux and cabernet drinkers who cling to their favorite châteaux and Napa Valley brands, pinot noir lovers gravitating to their pinots of choice, Spanish wine junkies to their increasingly growing choice of exceptional Spanish wines, and so forth. Needless to say, there are almost no regional or grape categories (apart from the price points) seeing notable growth at the moment, and so even the finest syrahs are in pretty much the same boat.

One of the silliest, yet strangely the best, assessments I’ve heard about the grape’s current market indolence is the observation that “consumers simply don’t know what to expect” from a bottle of syrah, according to one recent online report filed by a Wine & Spirits correspondent. It continues, will the wine “be a spice box – peppercorns and lavender, anise and mocha? A butcher’s banquet – scents of organ meats and bacon fat and beef bones? A food fight at the jam factory – heady gobs of blueberries lobbed into the glass, textures as squishy as a pachyderm’s tush?”

In fact, these questions are so well worded that it slices directly to the heart of the matter: syrah in America is not just an intense, multifaceted wine, it comes in a fascinating variety of styles and choices. Hey, wait a sec: isn’t that what we love about, say, French and Italian wines, Bordeaux and cabernet sauvignons, or Burgundy and pinot noirs from around the world? Since when is sensory diversity a prob? As a wine aficionado, what wets your whistle more: perfect sameness, or unexpected surprise (or, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, when you come to a fork in a road, do you take it)?

Here’s my assessment, based upon thirty-plus years in the trenches (buying, selling, and reporting on wines, from Hawai`i to New York): America’s syrah producers are doing the right thing, growing their category and making more exciting wines than ever, even if the market hasn’t quite caught up with them yet. It’s only a matter of time, and circumstances. It took, for instance, some twenty years for the market to catch up with pinot noir producers toiling in cold pockets of Oregon and California. It had taken over a century for the rest of the world to “discover” the fertile founts of Priorat, Bandol, Lodi, Mendoza, etc. The wine world once consumed German rieslings like water; yet as we speak, we’re still waiting for it come back around to appreciating the rarified qualitatswein of the Rhine and Moselle.

My well spent summer (whole pig roasting in North Carolina)


Top notch syrah can do several things at once: knock you off the proverbial feet, yet entice and seduce you with fine delineations of fruit, spice and textures. Like pinot noir without the delicacy, or cabernet sauvignon without the testosterone.

As such, the finest syrahs make terrific food matches; but like all other great wines, they have their ideal time and place. For instance, I have one well travelled friend – a gourmet, intellectual and bon vivant – who swears by syrah as the single best wine for the cuisines of China. While extremely varied, few would argue that Chinese cuisines are probably the most complex in the world; not just because they incorporate every foodstuff in the world, but also because they tend to touch every part of the tongue and olfactory, like well ordered cacophonies of sensations. Syrah has not only the complexity, but the stuffing to fit in places few other wines can.

When cooking for syrah, some thoughts and guidelines:
  • Syrah is a quintessential “big red” calling for red fleshed foods – from beef and lamb to tuna, goose and game, or else fattier cuts of pork
  • It pays to play up to syrah’s spice (suggestive of black pepper and smoky incense), a complexity that is more subtle that often assumed; and this can be done with use of aromatics like garlic and alliums, peppercorns and peppers (bells as well as chiles), cinnamon and clove, all mushrooms, mustards, ginger, bay, basil, mints, parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, and thyme
  • The violet and floral qualities of syrah can be highlighted with the use of plum, berries and cherries (fresh or dried)
  • Grilling and roasting are always good ideas, but bringing out the sweetly scented berry or plum qualities of syrah by first marinating any number of ways is also good. We’ve had luck with soy sauces infused with ginger, garlic, scallions, star anise, lemon grass, and even chili pastes, balanced by sweeteners like palm sugar (i.e. the Chinese or Asian-Fusion friendly elements of syrah).
  • Any variation of American barbecue marinades -- especially meatier beef ribs or chewy tips in vinegar (as in the Carolinas) or mustard laced sauces -- will play off the flowery fruit, peppery spice (connects with restrained chili spices, often with electrical results), and underlying acidity of classically composed syrahs.
  • There is enough of a sweetly fruit forward quality in top drawer syrah to be successful with stews and braises; classically in seasoned natural stocks (especially with quatre-epices), and innovatingly in Japanese, Chinese or Korean inspired stocks
And a few of our favorite culinary blasts from the past, incorporating the grape from around the world:
  • Twice cooked duck and mesclun salad with confit of garlic in a syrah reduced balsamic vinaigrette with Chave’s sprightly, smoky, slightly gamey and smoothly rounded Saint-Joseph Offerus
  • Cracked peppercorn crusted tuna in a garlic thyme syrah syrup with a moderately tannic, black peppery perfumed Bonny Doon Sir Rah Syrah.
  • Grilled quail and wild mushroom terrine in a spicy roasted red bell pepper sauce with a round and fruit driven Qupe Central Coast Syrah
  • Cassoulet of lamb, oxtail and pig’s ear with a classically huge, muscular Cornas by Allemand
  • Australian free-range lamb chop in a wild cherry shiraz reduction with a powerfully sculpted, sinewy, scented Penfolds Grange-Hermitage
  • Hoisin marinated tenderloin of lamb in a tamarind plum ginger glaze with wasabi mash, matched by a massive yet sweetly concentrated Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz
  • Most recently, a roasted ribeye of veal with hedgehog mushrooms and rosemary/oregano tinged mornay with a lush yet muscular, resiny herb spiced Shenandoah Valley Syrah by C.G. Di Arie.
Kris Curran


Here’s a short list of recently tasted syrahs that, if you truly dig the grape, you really need to sit up and pay attention to:


Alban Vineyards, Reva Syrah 2005 (Alban Estate, Edna Valley) - Goodness gracious, can syrah from anywhere in the world can any more intense, sleek and balanced as this? Black-purplish ruby, followed by nose of smoked bacon and oak, and sweetly scented, concentrated, violet and framboise/berry aromas. Thick, full, unctuous impact; the luscious flavors unfolding in textured layers across the palate.

Curran, Black Oak Vineyard Reserve Syrah 2005 (Los Alamos) – Winemaker/proprietor Kris Curran’s credentials are impeccable (formerly of Cambria, Koehler, and Sea Smoke, and currently directing winemaking operations for Foley Estates Vineyard); plus, born, raised and schooled on the Central Coast, it’s safe to say that few vintners know the region as intimately as her. This bottling is masterful: black ruby; sweet, dense, thickly fruited nose exuding rosemary, smoke and pepper spices; rich, chewy, yet fleshy, expansive flavors of teasing, intertwining smoke, spice and fruit that hit the palate with a jolt, before finishing with a phenomenal length of long, lively, sweetly balanced sensations.

Baker Lane, Estate Vineyard Syrah 2007 (Sonoma Coast) - Shiny new star producer; the wines made by Steven Canter (who also works full-time for Quivira), and this wine co-fermented with 5% viognier. Nose is violet/floral scented, with backdrop of smoked meats and crushed berries; juicy, round, thick and full-bodied on the palate; the crushed berry flavors mingling with dark roasted coffee and charred oak underpinnings.

Stolpman Vineyards, Estate Grown Syrah 2007 (Santa Ynez Valley) - Glass staining purplish ruby releasing a varietal perfume of sweet violet, lavender and blackberry; big, thick, densely layered body compacted by sturdy tannin, filled to the brim with meaty syrah fruit sweetened by a glycerol viscosity, powering through the smoke and tannin.

Stolpman Vineyards, Estate Grown Syrah 2006 (Santa Ynez Valley) – Here, the ultra-luxurious, bright, flowery, sweet berry nose is tinged with lavender as well as vivid, exotic spices (dried herbs, black and red pepper); super-full, dense, muscular feel, encasing fleshy fruit of high viscosity and finely polished, thick textures.

Beckmen, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah 2007 (Santa Ynez Valley; Biodynamic® grapes) - Black purple extraction; intense, wild blackberry concentration with a floral, violet-like perfume and smoky, chocolaty suggestions; on the palate, a gushy, almost sweet fruit-bomb character, notwithstanding a thick, muscular feel; the thick tannins and oak toast playing second fiddle to the plump, youthful fruitiness.

Beckmen, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Santa Ynez Valley) - This vintage is filled with ripe, sweet blackberry aromas, fleshed out with more of a raw cacao complexity and sprigs of herby mint; thick, dense, full body, buttressed by muscular tannin overlain with the sweet, chocolaty fruit sensations.

Paul Lato, Il Padrino Syrah 2007 (Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley) – A tiny producer well worth the time and trouble to find: stunningly intense nose of sweet berries, violets, brown (cinnamon), black (peppercorn), and exotic (ginger) spices; the spiced fruit of immense concentration on the palate; big body and tannin smoothed over by silken, sweet sensations.

Paul Lato, Cinematique Syrah 2007 (Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley) - Compared to Lato’s Il Padrino, even more fragrant (violet, lavender and musk spices) and earthy (rosemary/raw meat) in the nose, specked with blackpepper; rounder, more finely finished, silken mouth-feel, with moderate tannin running beneath the sweet/spicy flavors.

Skylark, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Sonoma Coast) - By the sommelier/winemaker team of John Lancaster and Robert Perkins (both still active at Boulevard in San Francisco). Black/purplish ruby; sweetly intense perfumes of crushed berries, dark roasted coffee, cracked pepper and pine needles. Big, thick, plush qualities of the same on the palate; an aggressive, let-it-all-hang-out approach to Syrah.

Larry Brooks

Tolosa, 1772 Syrah 2006 (Edna Valley) – Tolosa’s long respected winemaker, Larry Brooks (an architect of the wines of Acacia and the Chalone Group during their glory years), picks the cream of Tolosa's Central Coast Vineyard Team (i.e. CCVT) sustainable vineyards to make his “ultimate” syrah, which for him means an “abundance of aromatics,” of which he is “obsessed with.” A purple tinged crimson color leads to Brooks’ idolatrous nose: exotic, fragrant spices of sandalwood, faintly of smoky incense, mingling with meaty berry flavors on a palate built on round yet muscular tannin, a little fruity baby fat, and velvet textured finish.

Morgan, Double L Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Santa Lucia Highlands) – There already is plenty of evidence, like this CCOF certified organic bottling, that the most complex, elegant syrahs in the U.S. are bound to come from the colder climate regions such as the wind scrubbed slopes towards the north end of Santa Lucia Highlands. Vivid black/purplish color indicates concentrated extraction, but there’s nothing over-the-top about this finesseful wine: sweet violet-like varietal fragrance, compacted with peppery and roasted coffee-like spices, underscored by a mild, animal-like meatiness; thick, dense feel on the palate, enlivened by snappy acidity and unencumbered by heavy alcohol, finishing with focus on the smoky, luscious, violet perfumed notes.

Paraiso Vineyards, Wedding Hill Syrah 2004 (Santa Lucia Highlands) – Another top-notch, CCVT sustainable SLH growth, redolent of uplifted, flowery scented, sweet spiced syrah fruit, coated in slightly aggressive, smoky/toasty oak (nothing wrong with that as long as the fruit rings true). The body is full, round, dense and velvety; and the smoked flavors, bright, sweet, almost chocolaty thick. Not a shy reading of the grape, but an immensely satisfying one.

Justin Vineyards, Savant 2006 (Paso Robles; 59% syrah/41% cabernet sauvignon) - Not a pure syrah, but dominated enough by the grape to bear mention: multi-faceted nose of sweet herbs (rosemary and pine needles), violets, hard spices (clove and star anise), and roasted meats; velvety entry leading to big, round, fleshy body, filled with the sweetly spiced flavors.

Justin Vineyards, Syrah 2007 (Paso Robles) – Fragrant floral nose underscored by soft leather glove and burnt leafy spices and oak nuances; gentle yet full on the palate, the rounded flavors sweetened by vanillin oak accentuated by the smoky spices.

C.G. Di Arie, Southern Exposure Syrah 2005 (Shenandoah Valley) – High quality Amador County syrah has been long time coming. Certainly, the ingredients (2000 ft. elevations, and poor, porous, crushed granitic hillsides) have always been there, and new, quality focused wineries like C.G. Di Arie are turning things around. Adventurous syrah lovers, take note: black purplish color followed by an intensely varietal nose of crushed violets and concentrated, baked berries, along with smoked bacon and distinctively wild, resiny rosemary bush-like spices. On the palate, firming muscular tannin wrapped around big, sweet flavors, finishing with a smack of leather and meat.

Perry Creek Altitude: 2401, Dark Forest Syrah 2006 (Fairplay) – Gloss over this boutique sized El Dorado County winery at your own peril, because they’re making a Syrah as massively concentrated as any in the world, yet without that sense of alcoholic weight or overripe sweetness that (frankly) is more common than not in top drawer Californians. The luscious dark berry nose is tinged with floral fragrance and stony earth tones; thick tannins layered over by the juicy fruit and velvet texture.

Miraflores, Syrah 2005 (El Dorado) – Consulting winemaker Marco Cappelli escaped from Napa Valley (Swanson winemaker for sixteen years) to move to his own little paradise on an El Dorado hilltop, and he’s exerting elegant composures to the high elevation wines of the region: here, well defined violet, blue and black berry scented varietal aromas filling out a moderately full, densely structured body, impacting the palate with a rounded stoniness along with chocolaty rich fruit qualities, adding up to a syrah with both guts and surprising restraint.

Klinker Brick, Farrah Syrah 2005 (Lodi) – Lodi produces underrated syrahs in a style, while submerged in sweetly ripened fruit, is invitingly round and lush. The varietal character in the old-vine sourced Klinker Bricks takes on blueberry tones, with sweet, smoky French oak and bacon-like notes adding nuance; and on the palate, the full bodied flavors are plump, round and succulent.


Tyrus Evan, Del Rio Vineyards Syrah 2006 (Rogue Valley) – Oregon pinot noir god, Ken Wright, crafts this hummer carrying the names of his sons, sourced from a spectacular hillside site steeped in what he calls a “rockpile soil.” The results are truly special in the bottle as well: beginning with a nose of wild, earthy, almost animal-like (n.b. no hint of brett), organic aromas – lavender, violet, wild berries, dried kitchen herbs, and wood charred meats – and evolving into a full yet rounded, deftly scaled body braced by thickening tannin, and filled to the top with the dense, viscously textured fruit and spices. World class.

Tyrus Evan, Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Walla Walla Valley) - Seven Hills is known to many aficionados of Walla Walla Valley wines, although what’s often overlooked is that the vineyard lies at the south end of the AVA, in Oregon rather than in Washington St. Ken Wright's transparent approach to the grape is all over this wine, all but containing the explosively ripe, floral, blue and black berry nuanced syrah perfume; big, thick, yet round and velvety on the palate.

Del Rio Vineyards, Syrah 2006 (Rogue Valley) – Super purplish color signaling a lusciously concentrated nose of the floral varietal fragrance, assiduous blueberry/framboise-like fruit, and smoky, scrubby notes of French oak merged with the kitchen herb spice of the grape. On the palate, a velvet texture wrapped around the concentrated fruit and sturdy tannin, taking on a sweet meatiness as it rounds off into a long, juicy finish. Textbook rendition of the emerging Southern Oregon style.

Spangler Vineyards, Sage’s Hill Estate Syrah 2007 (Southern Oregon) – I don’t know how this Umpqua Valley winery does it, but it’s there in spades: an intense pepper grinder spiciness, pervading the sweetly concentrated nose and thick, dense, sinewy textures and roped licorice flavors; yet both a faintly tart aged acidity and restrained alcohol (only 12.6%) definitely keep the wine from coming across as fat or heavy, as the peppery fruit rides into a long, zesty finish.

Spangler Vineyards, Syrah 2006 (Southern Oregon) – Winemaker/proprietor Pat Spangler says this is his “Barossa Valley style” syrah, and in terms of structure – a big, round burliness – it is. But it also carries a cracked pepper grinder spice and floral syrah perfume seldom found in Aussie shiraz (where ultra-ripe fruitiness tends to bury varietal nuances). The palate sensations are thick and muscular, while avoiding that teetering high alcohol feel, allowing the spiced fruit qualities to predominate.

Penner-Ash, Syrah 2006 (Oregon) - Blending fruit from Rogue Valley's Del Rio Vineyard and the Lewis Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Penner-Ash exacts an exceedingly elegant demeanor to Oregon syrah: purplish ruby followed by sweet raspberry liqueur-like fruit fragrance with wisps of smoke and white pepper; the spiced berries flowing in thick, surging layers, forged with finely finished textures.

Quady North, The Flagship Syrah 2007 (Applegate Valley) – Fashioned by Herb Quady (a former Bonny Doon cellar rat, and son of California fortified wine specialist, Andrew Quady), who also is the full-time winemaker of the Applegate Valley’s Troon Vineyard. The nose here is sweet, floral, and studded with almost equal doses dried plum, lavendery dried herbs and cracked peppercorn spice. Fully, round and fleshy on the palate; the fat fruitiness hardened just beneath the outer core by solidly packed tannin. This is big, serious stuff, even if, like a tree falling in the woods, you aren’t yet cognizant of what’s going on in this rarely covered part of the West Coast.

Quady North, 4-2, A Syrah 2006 (Rogue Valley) – A sweet berry liqueur aroma is enhanced by bacon fat and white peppery floral fragrances; and while big, tight and steely with tannin, the sweetly spiced flavors penetrate the palate, even as it works it way through a somewhat awkward adolescent stage.

Quady North, 4-2, A Syrah 2007 (Rogue Valley) – You never want to say this, but I find the lot of top drawer Southern Oregon syrahs to have delineated qualities that are more strikingly reminiscent of what you find on slopes of the Northern Rhône rather than in Washington or California. Here, the floral varietal perfume is embroidered with anise/licorice-like spice, gunflint and the smoke of oak; these organic qualities carrying through into a sturdy medium-full body, its plump qualities filled out by rounded tannins tucked into the effusive fruitiness.

Weisinger’s, Syrah 2005 (Rogue Valley) – Like that of other Southern Oregon syrahs, an unerringly varietal violet and lavendery perfume, embellished with smoky oak and wild berry qualities; big, thick, sturdy structure, brimming with the floral fruit running unimpeded by even the full throttled tannin.

Washington State:

Amavi, Les Collines Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Walla Walla Valley) – One of Washington’s current cream of the crop for this grape: black purplish color unveils a powerful, plummy, violet scented nose nuanced with gunflint black tea, garrigue-like rosemary, and smoked meat aromas; big and round on the palate, the thick tannins smoothed over by the delicious preponderance of varietal fruit.

Long Shadows, Sequel Syrah 2006 (Columbia Valley) – A collaboration of Long Shadows founder Allen Shoup (former longtime Chateau Ste. Michelle exec) and consulting winemaker/partner John Duval (famed for his years at the helm of Australia’s Penfolds, crafting wines like the famous Grange), as executed by Long Shadows winemaker Gilles Nicault. While you would expect an Aussiefied taste, the Sequel actually ends up more of a typical Washington style syrah: a big, vivid, smoky, broad, unsubtle fruit-bomb of a wine, loaded with toasty, charred oak, with the slightly overripe, sweet berry qualities embedded in thick, dense, tannin thickened textures. Yet, there are finesseful highlights in this wine; particularly in the layering of the oak upon the fruit, transluscent enough to let the sweetness and chewing tobacco-like spice to shine through and make for a nimble, polished finish.

Sleight of Hand, Levitation Syrah 2007 (Columbia Valley) – Winemaker/proprietor Trey Busch might be a new kid on the block (2006 was the winery’s first vintage), but he is already showing a (shall we say) magical touch with Washington’s intense, oft-times severely tannin laden fruit. Nothing like that here: bright, beautiful strawberry nose, veering towards framboise-like richness; on the palate, a moderately scaled body loaded with lush, fruit forward qualities, yet as densely textured as any of these blockbusters from the Northwest.

Saviah Cellars, Syrah 2006 (Walla Walla Valley) – Winemaker/proprietor Rich Funk represents a new breed of Washington winemakers, intensely attuned to both contemporary tastes and the nuances of his surrounding terroir: out of a haze purple color, blackberry liqueur and cloved cherry compote aromas condensed into compact nose; on the palate, a dense, tannin lined, vanilla laced fruitiness with youthful, primary qualities – piquant, chewy, sweet.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Is Riesling the ultimate white wine for food?

In the beginning, there was Riesling. That is to say, when I first got into the business in the mid-1970s; when wines like Cold Duck, Blue Nun, Mateus, Lambrusco, and Chenin Blanc were our best sellers, Chardonnay (then called “Pinot Chardonnay”) was an obscurity, Merlot unheard of, and White Zinfandel wasn’t even invented.

Tastes were simpler then – all most people wanted was something soft, light and nectarishly sweet. So when we needed to upgrade our guests, we could turn to German Rieslings from great vineyards like Doktor, Sonnenuhr, Vollrads, Johannisberg, and Scharzhofberg; and generally speaking, these vineyards’ medium sweet spätlesen were the most popular. Definitely an upgrade over Blue Nun and Mateus.

Then came the early 1980s, and with the introduction of $5 Glen Ellen and $8 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnays, consumers fell into somewhat of a deep end. “Fine wine” suddenly became a game: the bigger, more prestigious and pricey the wine, the better. $35 Chateau Montelena and Peter Michael Chardonnays eventually led to $75 Turley Zinfandels, $100 Beringer Private Reserves, and $500 Grace Family Cabernet Sauvignons. Why mince words? Connoisseurship lapsing into upmanship; just another word for stupidity.

Urziger Wurzgarten (Mosel, Germany)

What happened? Bonny Doon’s winemaker/proprietor, Randall Grahm, once blamed it all on the popularity of Chardonnay. I think he still calls the grape the “Vintichrist… a symbol of our degeneration into cholesterol-infused mania.”

I don’t think Chardonnays, or Turley Zinfandels and Napa Valley Cabernets, are inherently bad. But I sure do miss the days when wine drinking was simpler. When, like eating quiche and driving Bugs, we could still boast about enjoying this great Piesporter Goldtöpfchen the other night while combing our Brylcreemed hair. It’s a shame, says Grahm, that Riesling came to be perceived as the “nerdiest possible grape” when, in fact (to Grahm, at least), it is the “very hippest.”

But maybe the times, they are a’changing again. If Dylan himself can go on television, lending his wasted, sandpaper chords to commercial to, of all things, transparent lingerie; and if nerdiness itself – skinny and fat guys alike in raggedy shirts, girl-pants, goggle glasses, sheep scissors shorn hair and all – can suddenly be cool, maybe Riesling can, too. Strange days indeed.

Most peculiar, mama. Especially the recent talk about Riesling suddenly being second to none for contemporary cuisines and the new types of manly men (and the women, and men, who love them that way). There certainly seems to be some signs of energy coming from the wine producing community apart from Mr. Grahm. In one of his newsletters a few years back, Harry Peterson-Nedry of Oregon’s Chehalem Vineyards went absolutely girly-man in his description of the grape.

"Riesling is a dancer… a Mia Hamm… a lithely elegant Audrey Hepburn or firmly aristocratic Katherine Hepburn. Like the world of grace, manners, reserve and contemplation… Riesling has been neglected… deferred to a competition of wines made in macho proportions, wines on steroids like oak and alcohol and extract."

Give ‘em hell, Harry. If anything, the finest Rieslings are the direct opposite of “steroid” pumped Chardonnays and Cabernets. The best are light, delicate, wickedly sleek, often cuttingly dry and just as often meltingly sweet, yet almost always brightly acidic, even nervy. A tale of two Hepburns, as it were.

So why drink Riesling today? Thirty years ago we unabashedly enjoyed Riesling because of its inherently sweet nature; and the very best of that style, of course, always came from the Germany, where the cool climate (the coldest in the world for growing grapes) gives the natural acidity necessary to balance wines with residual sugar.

But the fact of the matter is that during the past twenty years over 90% of Germany's Rieslings have been produced more in the dry style – bottled as trocken (“dry”) or halbtocken (“half-dry) – similar to the style of Riesling traditionally produced in France’s Alsace region. Why? Because people in Germany, and much of the rest of the world, now prefer it that way; particularly to go with their increasingly internationalized taste in food.

In 1998, when I first visited Bernkastel-Kues on the Moselle River, I found it almost ironic when I asked Johannes Selbach (owner of the Selbach-Oster winery) which restaurant I should go to for the best selection of local wines, he said, "Why, that would be the Indian restaurant near the center of town.” Even in the fairy tale wine country towns, Germany is much more than sauerkraut, liver dumplings, and blood sausages.

Despite the association of Riesling with Germany, this late budding grape has also been known to perform quite well, thank you, in regions as diverse as Alsace in France, Austria and Australia, South Africa and Canada, New York and New Zealand, Columbia and Niagara, Georgia our fourth state and Georgia the post-Soviet state. In warmer climes such as these, Riesling naturally produces fuller, fruitier, but less crisp and finesseful whites than in Germany. In France and Australia in particular, because of the retention of less balancing acidity, the pervasive style is decidedly softer and drier than in Germany.

But precisely because of the wine’s intrinsic, undiminished beauty no matter where it’s grown, Riesling has definitely been making a comeback. Not exactly a Waimea Bay sized wave of a comeback; but definitely a noticeable bit of a turning tide, washing up between our toes, to the occasional amusement of even many Chardonnay and Cabernet drinkers. And if anything, much of the recent resurgence has been for culinary reasons.

Chehalem's Riesling planting (Willamette Valley)


Is Riesling the greatest single white wine for food? If you go by the tried-and-true premise that intrinsically balanced wines of any type tend to go better with food, it may very well be. No, Riesling cannot leap tall buildings (or at least, tall orders of foods) in a single bound. But it is Riesling’s naturally fresh, lithe, vibrant balance of acidity and fruitiness that tend to make it an easy match with the oft-times fatty, sweet, soured foods of traditional Germany.

Some observations on Riesling as a food match; why and when it works:

* It’s nice to have a wine that easily echoes the balance of sweet, sour, salty or spicy condiments like salsa, dips and relishes, often served to enhance white meats

* The lightness, sugar/acid balance and floral fruitiness of Riesling makes it an easier wine than others to match foods incorporating anise or licorice-like herbs such as cilantro, tarragon, Thai basils, Mexican mint marigold, dill and chervil; variant but strong seasonings like capers, anise, ginger and coriander; and other dominating ingredients such as alliums, fennel, sorrel, ginger, chiso and lemon grass

* Few wines carry sweetness as well as Riesling, and so it goes without saying that this quality allows Riesling to go where other wines can’t -- balancing hot spices (the entire, multi-cultural range of chile derived oils, pastes and spice mixes), saltiness (soy sauce based marinades, dips and sauces, seafood stocks, seaweeds, oyster sauce, cured meats, briny fish, gravlax, and so forth), sourness (seviche, tamarind, ponzu, pickled vegetables, fresh citrus, pomegranate, kaffir, all vinegars, even “thousand year old eggs”), as well as mild bitterness (vegetables like kaiware, Chinese broccoli and cabbages)

* Be as it may, in our experience we’ve found that the best Rieslings for balanced foods that express the full range of taste and tactile sensations are those that are either barely sweet or else completely dry! Riesling is an intense enough grape to project flowery fruitiness even without the presence of residual sugar, yet with a finer, cleaner, crisper sense of balance than other aggressively scented varietals (such as Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Muscat Blanc)

* One would also assume that when a dish contains sweet components, it makes sense to match it with a slightly sweet to medium sweet Riesling (approximately 1.5% to 4% residual sugar); but again, we have found this to be not true. When dishes are already balanced with residual sugar, it is almost preferable that a Riesling be either dry or just whispery sweet (between .6 or 1.5% residual sugar, depending upon the wine’s strength of balancing acidity), as anything sweeter than that tends to make residual sugars in a dish redundant (rendering the entire combination of food and wine unbalanced or cloying)

* It is worth noting that Riesling also does well with smoked or cured foods (like trout, salmon, and even pork or poultry)

* It is for these reasons that Riesling easily matches many of the globally styled foods we enjoy today that were once perceived as “impossible” wine matches: hot curries, chile laced sauces, sweet/sour barbecues, salty shoyu dips, herby salad vinaigrettes, and umami intense vegetables (such as mushrooms, seaweeds, and vine ripened tomatoes) and meats (especially raw fish and slow cooked “other white” meats)

* Again for the same reason, Riesling is especially apropos in contemporary restaurants driven by classically trained, but multi-cultural inspired, chefs who almost invariably incorporate ingredients that give hot, sour, salty, sweet or even bitter sensations. Why? These are the restaurants we enjoy the most!

Balance of acidity, lightness, and food versatility are not the only qualities of classic Rieslings. What’s wrong with a wine that actually tastes great by itself? After all, the perpetually lush, peaches-and-cream fruitiness of Riesling is as fresh and soft to the palate as a proverbial spring day. Who doesn’t enjoy the taste of spring – winter, spring, summer or fall? In other words, Riesling is as much a wine for all times and all tastes as for all kinds of foods.

Is Pinot Noir the ultimate food wine?

It’s often said these days that Pinot Noir is the ultimate “food wine.” Not that it goes with “everything” or is the wine that everybody loves. But it does have the highest percentage chance of matching any specific dish than any one other wine type.

Or does it? Well, let’s talk Pinot. Not all Pinots are alike, but generally speaking they come with a light to medium sized body, moderate and relatively soft tannin, mild but perceptive acidity, marked textural qualities (“velvet” or “silk”), and sachet-like bundles of flower, spice, berry and herb perfumes wrapped in subtle vanillin, smoky qualities of the French oak virtually always applied to the grape.

The typical Pinot Noir’s moderate tannin in particular gives it a flexibility to match both red and white meats with almost any degree of fattiness; and its mild acidity is often just crisp enough to broaden its range of white meats from pork, veal and chicken to fish and even shellfish.

Then there’s the factor of umami. Let’s not get mystical or mysterious about this taste sensation which basically occurs in foodstuffs with slightly elevated amino acids. But the fact of the matter is, although the presence of amino acids in wine is barely negligible (nonetheless there) the umami phenomenon is probably the only explanation for why naturally balanced, buoyant, soft tannin, phenol flavorful reds like Pinot Noir often make such delicious matches with the most unlikely (but umami intense) foods: like raw or seared-rare tuna in mustards and spices, oysters both raw and roasted, combinations of seafood in bourrides, cioppino and bouillabaisse, and even preparations of mussels, squid, eel and salt cod.

Enough mystique. A summary of classic food applications when matching or cooking for Pinot Noir:
  • Leaner meats (veal, chicken, turkey, rabbit, any game bird, and filets of beef or pork, and a well drained duck)
  • Smoked, wood roasted, braised or sausage meats (with the use of beef, lamb and pork)
  • Earthy, high umami flavors (such as truffles, wild mushrooms, mustards, peppercorns, coriander, and horseradish)
  • Resiny or scented green herbs (rosemary, thyme, tarragon, oregano, summer and winter savory, chervil, mints and basils)
  • Aromatic sweet spices (clove, cinnamon, mace, allspice and nutmeg)
  • Sweet vegetables (such as tomatoes, beets, carrots, caramelized onions and bell peppers)
  • Autumnal fruits (figs, plums, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, currants, black and dried cherries, etc.)
  • Natural stocks and sauces rounded with butter or oils and Pinot Noir
  • Slow cooking processes (braises, pot a feu, etc.)
  • Soft, creamy cheeses, some with zest (especially herbed crèmes like Boursin, Chèvre, Brie, Camembert, Havarti and Jacks)
  • Soft, rounded wine vinegars (especially balsamics and well aged rice vinegars)
The aforementioned are “predictables” for Pinot Noir; but lately consumers of more contemporary styles of foods and wines have been discovering just how far, and effortlessly, Pinot Noir will go beyond soft ripened cheese, boef bourguignonne, coq a vin, fig stuffed game birds and other classic settings.

When you sear scallops with powerfully aromatic truffles or truffle oil, for instance, all of the sudden it’s a dish for Pinot Noir rather than anything white. Oregonians like to serve their Pinot Noir with Northwest Native American style plank smoked salmon. In Hawai`i, it’s all about the finest tuna, albacore or hamachi in the world, in brothy, earthy ponzus.

In my world, Pinot Noir is even license to drink red wine with sweet/spicy, earth toned or mildly bitter Asian flavors such as star anise, wasabi, hoisin, Japanese radishes, seaweeds, lotus root, fennel, toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, mizuna, chiso, shiitakes, and even mild teriyaki marinades and glazes. All of which can actually bring out the mildly sweet, zippy, toasty, earthy, and wonderfully beefy qualities of Pinot Noir, and vice-versa.

No question, the taste of Pinot Noir becomes altered in untraditional, exotic food contexts. Traditionalist aficionados of classic red Burgundy may protest, but who cares?


One of the places in the world where tradition repeatedly meets innovation -- insofar as winemaking as well as food and wine matching -- is in Oregon. In early 1999 I put together an interesting multi-chef/winemaker dinner in Honolulu, matching the Pinot Noirs of eight Oregon winemakers with eight Hawaiian regional chefs with eight distinctive styles; some 300 Pinot lovers in attendance. Events like this are often the most inspiring not so much because all the matches work to perfection (which they don’t), but because they’re bound to bring out many new and novel approaches to the grape, and lots of great ideas.

The wines, their winemakers, the chefs and their food matches:

Lynn Penner-Ash’s 1996 Rex Hill Maresch Vineyard Pinot Noir – This firm, snappy, yet fluid, sensuously textured red with fragrances of autumn spice and smoky leaves acted as an example of just how easily Pinot fits with seafood – soft and fleshy pan seared scallops – even when served with a slightly acidic Asian green papaya salad, prepared by Philippe Padovani. Traditional thinking says that vinegary ingredients flatten out mildly tannic reds. But in this case, a sweet/spicy fruit balance in the dish seemed to underscore the bright, lively aspects of the Rex Hill.

On another occasion that year, we enjoyed this same Pinot Noir with wasabi cured, pan crisped salmon, finished with sea vegetable mignonnettes touched with rayu (chili oil); and the match worked like a charm. It’s amazing how many food barriers a more subdued, finely textured, yet multi-spiced Pinot Noir really can cross.

Harry Peterson Nedry’s
1996 Chehalem Ridgecrest Vineyard Pinot Noir
– While slightly beefier and more aggressively oaked than the Rex Hill, the Chehalem style is also finely poised with both dense and soft qualities on the palate; all of which was ideally matched with a very novel dish by Alan Wong – smoky, meaty tuna served on bitter edged Big Island grown greens (balancing out the wine’s tannins) and a pan crisped lumpia (Filipino style dumpling) filled with, of all things, warm Cambazola cheese. Needless to say, the warm and earthy cheese made a remarkable bridge, only increasing the round, smoky qualities of the wine.

We’ve also tried this wine with roasted quail stuffed with star anise scented Chinese black rice – food components that enrich the Chehalem’s aggressively smoky style, while making an exotic match.

Laurent Montalieu’s
1996 WillaKenzie Pierre Leon Pinot Noir
– It’s rare to find a red wine – such as this super smooth, yet tightly balanced, vanilla bean and peppermint spiced Pinot – that is actually overwhelmed by a fish dish, but that’s just what Russell Siu’s three peppercorn crusted salmon (further revved up by a sauce infused with red wine and veal juices) did.

While imperfect, this was at least a match illustrating the delicacy of Oregon grown Pinot Noir, and the veracity of placing “white wine” foods (i.e. fish) in classic red wine contexts to make it work; as in another occasion when we enjoyed WillaKenzie’s Pinot Noir with wood grilled mackerel, of all things, pulled together with a Pinot infusion and shiitake mushroomed sticky rice.

David Adelsheim’s
1996 Adelsheim Elizabeth Vineyard Pinot Noir
– In the nineties, Adelsheim’s Pinots often come with a gamey, almost leathery edge (i.e. flourishes of brettynomyces), while finishing soft, and seductively sweet with wild berryish fruit on the palate; and quite fortuitously, Eberhard Kintscher’s crab and Portobello mushroom “sandwich,” laced with a pungent truffle vinaigrette, served to keenly match and balance out the wine’s distinctly earthy qualities. Definitely a case of dish improving the wine!

Dick Erath’s
1996 Erath Vineyards Vintage Select Pinot Noir
– In this case, -- a soft, lovely style of Oregon Pinot showing the full spectrum of black, red and blue berry qualities so common to the region – the wine was slightly overpowered by Amy Ferguson-Ota’s intense, lush, succulent “Peking duck rillette.” If anything, a more strongly tannic Pinot Noir, or even Syrah, would have pushed the match closer to the fat part of the bat.

Mark Vlossak’s
1996 St. Innocent Seven Springs Pinot Noir
– This would qualify as a more voluminous style of Oregon Pinot, firmed up by muscular tannin and generous, aromatic qualities of blueberry, pepper spice, and even suggestions of earthy soy; proving to be a terrific match with Jean-Marie Josselin’s French and backyard Hawaiian inspired veal cheeks served in a Pinot Noir sage reduction over a root vegetable puree. Not as complex a dish as it sounds, but rather something earthy and elemental, which are perfect Pinot qualities.

Ken Wright’s 1997 Ken Wright Cellars Guadalupe Vineyard Pinot Noir – Wright’s fame is based on his unerring ability to coax out the purest possible soft, tender, fresh berry flavor in Oregon grown Pinot Noir, and this bottling was textbook. In this course, George Mavrothalassitis’ licorice smoked squab with sesame oil and gingery accents seemed to intensify both the meaty and hidden Asian spice elements in the wine – an unexpected, and blessedly rare, occurrence of wine and dish bringing out the best in each other.

But the pure, penetrating quality of Ken Wright Pinots also make them versatile; as we’ve discovered in other dinners, serving it with lighter variations of truffled poke (Hawaiian style raw fish chopped with sweet onions, soy and sesame oil) made with tuna or hamachi (yellowtail fish).

Mike Etzel’s 1996 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir – While certainly not “big” by, say, California Cabernet standards, this is a dense, concentrated, full throttled style of Pinot, brimming with luscious, almost sweet, smoky, spicy, beef brothy fruit, almost primordial in its forcefulness; and for this, Roy’s Gordon Hopkins shrewdly fashioned a tenderloin of pork stuffed with spicy wild boar, porcini and chanterelles, underlain by a velvety natural sauce. Anything but the Beaux Frères would have been blasted off the table; but as it turned out, the viscous, sweet and earth toned quality of the dish simply merged with the roaring fruit and smoke-of-oak of the wine.

Beaux Frères no longer makes this kind of Pinot; but when they did, they were some of the few that I would readily choose over standard issue Cabernet Sauvignon for dishes such as slow cooked, umami intensified beef (like Yankee pot roast with juniper berries), braised lamb shanks, and stewed venison: all examples of complex, caramelized meats better served by concentrated reds dominated by sweet, fragrant spices rather than brutally hard, drying tannin.

Reconsidering the oyster (and its sensible wine matches)

Coauthored by Jane Faris

While matters of science may be cut and dried, it’s somewhat good to know that matters of the senses – such as food and wine – remain tolerant of knowledge passed on through lore and fiction as much as fact.

Take oysters, for instance. Or just the idea of eating a raw oyster, sitting in its shell – blue-grey, cold, quivering. The oft-repeated line credited to Jonathan Swift is “he was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” Is it any wonder, given that mythological courage, that oysters have always been defined as good for everything from bones and brains, and from appetites to sex?

No doubt, the most literate description of oysters can be found in M.F.K. Fisher’s 60 page, quasi-cookbook, Consider the Oyster; copyrighted in 1941, but reading as fresh as ever. In it, like an organoleptic physician, Fisher prescribes very dry white wine – preferably French Chablis, Pouilly Fuissé or Champagne – as the “safest” matches for oysters, especially when the two are served at the same chilly (but not frozen) temperatures.

Although this wine advice was based on Fisher’s practical experience (“Whether they were correctly drunk or not, I was…”) there are no writers or sommeliers to my knowledge who would beg to differ. The wisdom of drinking light, puckery dry white wine with oysters is not so much accepted as assumed – like drinking water from a cup, and eating sashimi with chopsticks.

The interesting thing about Chablis, Pouilly Fuissé and Champagne is that all these wines are made from the same variety of Vitis vinifera, Chardonnay (although Champagne, as smart alecky sommeliers would remind you, are usually blends of Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Knowing this, it might stand to reason that one could substitute Chardonnay made from more readily available sources such as California or Australia, but here is where the logic goes awry.

Since the grape growing regions of California and Australia are much warmer than those of France, Chardonnays from these areas generally lack the lemony tartness and sense of lightness that make the French wines so appropriate for oysters. In fact, the differences between Chardonnay-based wines grown in France and Chardonnays grown in the New World can be so dramatic, you’d think they were made by two different grapes.

Yet by no means is every white wine from France “cold climate” grown, and thus ideally suited to oysters. Wines from warmer parts of France such as the Rhône, Provence and Languedoc – made from grapes like Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne – are like the warm climate Chardonnays of the New World: lower in acid, heavier in alcohol, and thus less than optimal for the eating of oysters in the raw.

On the other hand, there are some wine grapes that tend to produce white wines with perfectly oyster friendly, tart qualities, no matter where in the world it is grown. The Sauvignon Blanc (often called Fumé Blanc in the U.S.) is a prime example. I am not certain why the original, steely dry, crisp edged styles of French grown Sauvignon Blanc – sold by their place names, such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé – did not make it into Fisher’s treatise. Neither did the simple, feathery light and lemony whites made from Picpoul (a grape name that literally translates as “lip stinger”), which is probably the only white wine from France’s Mediterranean coast that makes an enduring match with oysters. I suspect that M.F.K. liked best what she was most familiar with – the wines of France’s Burgundy region – which is always the best policy anyway.

Muscle Over Matter

While oysters are famously immobile – once its seed finds its rock, there the bivalve abides – they do have a powerful muscle that opens and shuts its gnarly shell. Contrary to popular opinion, not all oysters are created equal, and the differences in taste have as much to do with its muscle as its species.

Some oysters are brinier, some are creamier, some are lean and some are fat, some seem saltier, some seem earthier or muddier, and some even have a “fruity” taste, vaguely suggestive of cucumber and melons. Oyster aficionados would tell you that most of the differences in taste has to do with where the oyster is harvested. The muscle in all species of oyster tends to work harder in warmer waters, constantly opening and closing to allow a flow of water and nutrients. Therefore it is in the warmest waters – such as off the East and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. – oysters tend to be the leanest in meatiness, and have less of a creamy, fruity taste than oysters from colder waters.

In the coldest waters – particularly off the Western coasts of Canada and the American Northwest – oysters live a more contented life, having to work its fabled muscle much less; thereby developing a plumper, juicier, fruitier quality of meat in its shell, yet still with the briny, minerally or flinty taste of all oysters.

The second factor, of course, is species, and there are basically five commonly found in our oyster bars and seafood markets:

Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) - Perhaps our best known, native to the waters off the Eastern Seaboard, Nova Scotia, and all the way down to the Gulfstream waters between Florida and Texas. Sometimes called Atlantic oysters, and for many decades collectively called Blue Points (although Blue Points technically come only from Blue Point in New York’s Long Island), these distinctively oblong shaped, medium length (commonly 2 to 4 inches) oysters are also somewhat more delicate, minerally and saline in flavor than oysters from elsewhere.

Pacific Oyster (Crassostrea gigas) – Also called giant oyster due to its generous size (3 to 6 inches in oyster bars, but can reach 10 inches in length if allowed) as well as rich, generous, creamy textured flavor. Not a native, but originally introduced from Japan in the early 1900s; the bulk of the world’s harvest now coming from the icy waters of Washington’s Puget Sound as well as Oregon and Western Canada.

Kumamoto Oyster (Crassostrea sikamea) – Another native of Japan (although curiously, now extinct in its original home, Kumamoto Bay in Kyushu), but the opposite in size from the Pacific oyster. The popularity of “Komos” has exploded since it was first seeded in California (notably Humboldt Bay and Tomales Bay) after WWII because of its discreet (usually around 2 inch width), round size and accessibly discreet, round, somewhat fruity flavor – perfect for newbie oyster eaters, cocktails and oyster shooters.

Olympia Oyster (Ostrea conchaphila or lurida) – The smallest of our commercial oysters, native to the Pacific Northwest (harvested in Puget Sound and Hood Canal), although extending in the wild from Sitka, Alaska to Baja, California. Like Komos, the meat in the rounded, oblong shells (usually less than 2 inches) of “Olys” tends to be mild and fruity, with just a touch of the earthy, coppery taste associated with European species.

European Flat Oyster (Ostrea edulis) – Often called Belons (although authentically named Belons come only from the Belon River in Brittany, France), these distinctively flat, round to ovular, medium sized oysters – known for their sweet/salty/earthy taste – were transplanted in the 1950s, and are now farmed primarily in Washington, California, Maine and Nova Scotia, and sold under names like French Hogs (by Hog Island in Tomales Bay) or their place of origin (like Westcott Bays from Washington).

In spite of the fact that I have never, ever passed up a plate of fresh oysters during my adult life, I confess that it took me years to figure out which oysters are which, and only recently have I discovered the wonderful variations of wine that the different oysters invite. Still, I’m more likely to order my oysters like this: “I’ll take three of the small ones (Olys or Komos), three of the skinny ones (Blue Points or Belons), and six of the big, fat ones (varieties of the Pacific giants).” Considering the growing number of raw bars and seafood restaurants springing up across the country, it would behoove any oyster lover to at least consider the flavor profiles associated with the shapes.

In my own, rather unscholarly method of categorization, along with my considerably well practiced wine suggestions:


I call these “skinnies” because both East Coast and European flat oysters tend to have oval shaped shells, are leaner in meatiness, yet still retain a moderately briny, salty, steely flavor, delicious for eating raw, or else no more than a squeeze of lemon or a splash of mignonette (the classic mix of white wine vinegar, finely minced shallots and chervil).

In restaurants and markets Eastern oysters are commonly sold by their points of origin – under aliases such as Long Islands (the original Blue Points), Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), and Delawares or Bristols (Maine). Similar to these are the oysters off Eastern Canada, also sold by place names such as “Novys” (from Nova Scotia), Malpecques (Prince Edward Island), and Caraquets (New Brunswick).

The lean, briny Eastern oysters from the Northeast coast and Canada, however, are not to be confused with the Eastern oysters from the decidedly warmer Gulf Coast (such as Florida’s Apalachicolas and Mississippi’s Emerald Points). Gulf oysters are not just lean, but also duller, flabbier, almost “muddy” or “swampy” tasting – a little better suited for cooking (i.e. oysters Rockefeller, oyster po’ boys, fried oysters ‘n chips, or stuffed into “carpetbagger” steaks) than eating raw and plain.

Because of their lean and minerally taste, the easiest wine match for both Eastern and European flat oysters is probably any lean, minerally, bone dry white; but ideally, the pure Sauvignon Blancs from France’s Loire River, most commonly seen as Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, although lesser known Sauvignon Blanc appellations such as Cheverny, Quincy, and Menetou-Salon serve just as well.

While certainly acidic enough, to me the Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand and California are not quite as ideal since they tend to be fruity in flavor, and completely void of the stony, minerally, or flinty nuances found in French grown Sauvignon Blancs. In my experience, the better alternatives to Loire River Sauvignon Blancs for skinny oysters are the trocken (“dry”) or halbtrocken (“half dry”) white wines made from Germany’s Riesling grape, which can retain a zesty, slaty-mineral flavor. At only 9% to 12% alcohol, dryer German Rieslings sweep across the palate like a light, lilting, perfumey breeze, sweetening the taste of oysters with their natural lemon-lime acidity. Among the most reliable producers of this style found in America are Zilliken, Pfeffingen, Georg Breuer, von Hövel, Robert Weil, von Buhl, and Dr. Burklin-Wolf.

Other good choices for long and lean Eastern and European flat oysters? Spain’s flowery and flinty dry whites made from the Albariño grape (particularly those of Lusco, Morgadio, or Pazo de Senoran). Then from France: light and crisply dry Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, as well as classic Chablis, Mâcon Villages, or Pouilly Fuissé from Burgundy.


The waters off the Northwest coasts of Canada and the U.S. are an oyster lover’s paradise, giving the broadest, roundest, fruitiest, fleshiest, and most creamy textured of bivalves. These variations of the Pacific oyster are also usually sold by their place names; some of my favorites including: Hama Hamas, Quilcenes and Mallard Creeks (from Washington’s Hood Canal), Sinku’s and Pearl Bays (Wash.), Caraquets (Prince Edward Island, Ontario), Fanny Bays and Chefs Creeks (BC), and often the biggest of all, the South Puget Sound’s Tottens (the latter, from the Totten Inlets, literally a three or four bite oyster).

For these fat styles of oysters, I actually prefer a fruitier, more aggressively aromatic dry white with the requisite acidic underpinnings. Namely: Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand (Giesen, Nautilus, Morton, Brancott, and Villa Maria are five favorites), Sonoma County (Murphy-Goode, Simi, Iron Horse, Kenwood, and Chateau St. Jean), and even the fuller bodied, partially oak influenced styles of Napa Valley (most notably Selene, Crocker & Starr and Spottswoode, but also Robert Mondavi, Duckhorn and St. Supéry) and Santa Barbara (Fiddlehead and Babcock).

Other excellent Pacific oyster whites: dry white Graves from France’s Bordeaux region; dryer, chalky textured Loire River whites made from the Chenin Blanc grape (Savennières, Saumur Blanc, and sec or “dry” styles of Vouvray and Montlouis); dryer style Rieslings from Germany or Alsace; Washington St. Sémillon and Fumé Blanc; moderately scaled Grüner Veltliner from Austria; and German, Oregon, or Italian Pinot Gris (the latter sold as Pinot Grigio).


Both the dinky, mild yet lush, meaty Olympias and the small yet pillowy plump, sweet, succulent Kumamotos are absolutely amazing with bone dry, graceful, yeasty, crisply acidic styles of Brut Champagne from France. Heck, throw in a side of smoked salmon, crème fraiche and black caviar while you’re at it. In a pinch, though, any of the finer California sparkling wine producers (Iron Horse, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg, and even Korbel) would certainly do just fine, as would almost any good Prosecco Brut from Italy. There’s something about the pert, palate slaking effervescence of sparkling wine that practically shouts “Oly!” and “Komo!”

But if Olympias and Kumamotos could talk, no doubt they’d also call for something light, white, and downright lean and lemony as opposed to soft and fruity: especially Picpoul from Southern France and Muscadet from the Loire; the underappreciated, lemon zested Vinho Verde from Portugal; from Italy, Piemonte’s Arneis, Gavi (made from the Cortese grape) or Grechetto from Umbria; from Spain, the spring-fresh, citrusy Naia (from the Verdejo grape); finally, from Canada, the Finger Lakes and even Georgia, the sprightly, floral scented whites made from the Seyval Blanc grape (look for Persimmon Creek Vineyards').

… and I think I hear a plate of oysters calling for me now!