Seas the day | Oysters, wine and the 500 million-year trip

By Jim Boyce | It’s mind-blowing how one taste can trigger our primal, sentimental and intellectual senses. Last week, the briny Pacific tang of a Sun Seeker oyster pried open the ancient hollow of my brain that echoes with the era Paleozoic when our ancestors swam the saline seas. That salty-metallic liquor mesmerized me.

Then I tried the pairing wine, an apple-scented Josmeyer Pinot Grigio from Alsace. It washed over my taste buds, then tossed my mind forward 500 million years to a childhood memory. Of my father rotating paring knife against apple so the skin fell away in one corkscrew-shaped peel. He then sliced off a piece of fruit, impaled it on his blade, added a touch of salt, ate it, and repeated. Apple, salt, apple, salt, oyster, wine, Sun Seeker, Pinot Grigio.

In turn, that apple image fired my critical thinking neurons and shifted the focus to the wine. Was its apple-ness more crisp and juicy or soft and creamy? Where did it fall between the poles of sweet and sour? And what variety did it evoke? Was it Gala? Granny Smith? Golden Russet? Golden Delicious? Or–

Finally, my mind went to a second memory. It’s Christmas and my mother is recalling apple varieties grown on her family’s farm a half-century ago. Apples for baking. Apples for preserving. Apples fit for horses. Apples you might simply pick and munch while surveying the orchard. She listed thirteen kinds.

All of this unexpected mental activity, squeezed into a minute or two, was inspired by a single oyster and wine pairing. And that was but the first of nine bivalves on the plate.

The event was led by sommelier / consultant Li Meiyu for Oyster Talks, a restaurant that opened in 2013 in Workers Stadium in Beijing. (The Hong Kong parent operation dates to 2002.) Li is best-known from Park Hyatt Hotel and as the winner of the China National Sommelier Competition in 2011. She partnered with Oyster Talks GM Miranda Li and chef Simon Chan on this project.

“This is just the beginning of pairing wines and oysters,” said Li. “It looks simple, but it’s quite complicated, because the flavors and textures of the oysters change by season.”

The Oyster Talks team tasted about 100 wines and sorted the worthy ones into nine menu categories with names like “fresh and crisp”, “creamy and buttery” and “complex and rich.”

For the tasting, we tried an example from each category, with oysters hailing from Canada, France, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. I found the differences less noticeable than with the wines. My evaluations were limited to a dozen options or so, such as nutty, sweet, metallic, salty, very salty, super salty. Did everyone notice a cucumber flavor in that last oyster? I dunno. Maybe super salty cucumber?

The diversity of the wines made distinguishing them easier, from the crisp vegetal Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (Cirro) to the buttery Sonoma Chardonnay (Ramey) to, at least for me, the strange Koshu (Suntory) that earned “pizza herbs” as a tasting note.

My favorite pairing was the Wittmann Riesling Trocken from Germany with a Pacific oyster from Woodstown Bay Shellfish in Ireland. This crunchy oyster was briny, though milder than most, and slightly sweet. The lemon edge and zingy mineral finish of that Riesling was a nice fit.

Friends who have read this far are probably wondering if I have lost my mind. Because while I appreciate certain aspects of food and wine pairing, and equate it to, say, making dipping sauces at hotpot joints, I’ve also often said it smacks of bullshit.

The effort spent on pairing versus the number of people who care are at odds. Severely. And while the vintelligentsia love to say people should just drink what they like, wine pairing, depending on how it is presented, can turn off consumers who already find wine intimidating, and make them simply hope to get the “correct” combination. It really can go either way.

Anyway, once we finished our nine oysters, we received a few more to try with a trio of Champagnes, then tucked into some Wagyu beef. All good.

But it’s not what I’ll remember most. Prime storage space in my memory cellar is reserved for the experience, just a ten-minute walk from my home in central Beijing, of going on a half billion-year journey thanks to a Sun Seeker and a Pinot Grigio. That’s the kind of food and wine pairing no one can predict.

Note: Thanks to Oyster Talks for the invitation. And kudos to Li for the handy wine tasting cards and (below) the full menu of oysters and wines.

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