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By Chuck Hill

Chuck Hill, wine reviewer and columnist

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Wines of the Week
Published July 22, 2015

White Wines for Oysters and Mussels
Part One of a Four-Part Series
By Chuck Hill
 

I started tasting oyster wines seriously 20 years ago when Jon Rowley began his Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition.  A half-dozen wine experts were recruited to help sort through more than a hundred entries, pairing it down to 20 which would be judged by a larger group of journalists, restaurateurs and retailers in three cities.  From the beginning, there was some confusion about which would take priority: the absolute quality of the wine (with its affinity for oysters being second), or the affinity for oysters coming first.  As Jon said, “It’s not about the wine, it’s about the oyster!”  We wine experts thought that since it was a “Wine Competition,” more attention should be paid to the wine.  We lost the decision.

For 20 years I slurped half shell oysters with wines in this forum, looking for Jon’s “bliss factor” where a perfect balance of oyster and wine is experienced on the palate.  This judging technique resulted in some fairly simple wines coming through to win, since they didn’t interfere as much with the oystery-ness as more sophisticated and flavorful wines did. 

For 12 years now, I have run my own invitational oyster-wine tastings, with the addition of judging the wines with steamed mussels from Puget Sound as well.  Special thanks to Taylor Shellfish Company for providing delicious Kumamoto oysters and flavorful South Sound Mussels for these judging sessions.  You can enjoy Taylor products at their three Seattle oyster bars and at many restaurants around the world.  Order online at: www.taylorshellfishfarms.com 

In four columns, we will examine the oyster and mussel affinity of many varietals, beginning with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. 

Sauvignon Blanc

J. Christopher
2014 Sauvignon Blanc
Willamette Valley AVA
$20.00

Jay Somers is a remarkable winemaker in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, crafting crisp and food-friendly white wines as well as several award-winning Pinot Noirs.  His refreshing Sauvignon Blanc offers citrus, mineral and herbal notes to pair superbly with half shell oysters – scores high with the “bliss factor.” 

Columbia Crest Winery
2014 Sauvignon Blanc, H3
Horse Heaven Hills AVA
$15.00

Columbia Crest winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca crafts this tempting wine from grapes grown near the winery in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA.  The wine offers moderate alcohol and crisp acidity with aromas and flavors of spicy grapefruit, flinty mineral and flavors of pear, grassy herb and gooseberry. 

Savage Grace Wines
2014 Sauvignon Blanc
Yakima Valley AVA
$20.00

Michael Savage established his winery in 2011, naming after his surname (representing the struggle of the grape) and his wife’s first name Grace (symbolizing the finished wine’s balance and expression). His Sauvignon Blanc comes from Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley and is a blend of several clones of the variety.  Aromas of pear, citrus and wet stone lead to a crisp palate of clean citrus and mineral with refreshing acidity. 

Palencia Winery
2014 Sauvignon Blanc
Ancient Lakes AVA, Columbia Valley
$18.00

Victor Palencia crafted his Sauvignon Blanc from grapes grown in the new Ancient Lakes AVA (also known as the Quincy Basin) along the eastern side of the Columbia River north of Vantage, Washington. This Sauvignon Blanc offers the taster a complex mix of flavors with both citrus and mineral components offset by notes of melon, pear and honeysuckle. The wine pairs superbly with steamed mussels, but is just a bit too fruity for half shell oysters. 

Purple Star Wines
2013 Sauvignon Blanc
Ancient Lakes AVA, Columbia Valley
$12.00

This wine comes from the same AVA as the selection above, but offers a much different aroma and flavor profile (hint: it is from a different vintage!).  A nose of Columbia Valley grassy herb, lime zest and mineral leads to a palate that gives a hint of gooseberry to pair with the herbs and wet stone – very tasty with oysters. 

14 Hands
2014 Sauvignon Blanc, The Reserve
Horse Heaven Hills AVA
$22.00

This wine displays the fresh and tropical side of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA while also showing the effects of barrel fermentation and aging on the Sauvignon Blanc varietal.  Grapes were harvested from a warm summer vintage, allowing picking to take place in ideal temperature conditions.  Selected barrels of the wine were designated for The Reserve which offers aromas of passion fruit and grapefruit with notes of gooseberry and honeyed pear. The palate is rich with tropical flavors, making it a fine pairing for steamed mussels and full-flavored half shell oysters (Virginicas and Pacifics). 

Upland Estates
2013 Sauvignon Blanc
Snipes Mountain AVA
$18.00

Todd Newhouse is the proprietor of Upland Vineyard and Upland Estate Winery in the center of Washington’s Yakima Valley.  His family has owned the vineyard since 1972, selling most of the grapes to other Washington wineries.  Upland Estates winery was begun in 2006.  The 2013 Sauvignon Blanc is soft and approachable with pear and white peach yielding to citrus and mineral flavors on the finish – a tasty accompaniment to mussels. 

Willow Crest
2014 Sauvignon Blanc
Yakima Valley AVA
$14.00

From the warm 2014 vintage this Sauvignon Blanc from the mid-Yakima Valley offers ripe aromas and flavors of tropical fruits, sweet herbs and crisp citrus notes on the finish.  The soft palate suggests pairing with mussels, but there is ample acidity to also accompany fresh oysters on the half shell. 

Januik Winery
2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Sagemoor Vineyards
Columbia Valley AVA
$20.00

This wine is made with Sauvignon Blanc from Bacchus Vineyard as well as Semillon (22%) from Dionysus Vineyard, two of the three properties that collectively make up the group known as Sagemoor Vineyards (north of Pasco, Washington).  The wine is the perfect balance of intense varietal character (grapefruit, herb, spicy pear) with complex citrus, mineral and acidity on the palate to match with either oysters or mussels.  

Merry Cellars
2013 Sauvignon Blanc
Columbia Valley AVA
$20.00

Patrick Merry arrived in Pullman, Washington to pursue his Ph.D. in Computer Science, having just completed his Masters at Gonzaga University in Spokane.  His winemaking hobby soon became more substantial and he launched Merry Cellars in 2004.  He crafts a wide range of red and white wines including this barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc - which is a fine pairing for mussels - with aromas and flavors of ripe stone fruits, barrel spice and hints of caramel and orchard blossom. 

Semillon

L’Ecole No 41
2013 Semillon
Columbia Valley AVA
$14.00

This pioneer winery in the Walla Walla Valley has produced superb Semillon wines for almost 30 years. Fruit for this bottling was sourced from standout vineyards in the Walla Walla, Yakima and Columbia Valleys, and the grapes were whole-cluster pressed before fermentation.  Fifty percent of the wine was aged sur lie for several months.  Look for aromas and flavors of earthy pear, dried herbs and fig with hints of tropical citrus and barrel toast. 

Agate Ridge Vineyard
2012 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc
Rogue Valley AVA
$17.00

Fruit for this wine came from the Agate Ridge Estate Vineyard near Eagle Point, Oregon in the Rogue Valley AVA.   Aromas and flavors of grassy herbs, mineral and dried fruits are perfect accompaniments to our steamed mussels.  If you are in southern Oregon this summer, visit the winery for their Friday night Rockin’ at the Ridge concerts. 

Wines from other areas

Le Domaine Saget
2012 Pouilly-Fume
Loire, France
$28.00

Among the original wines hailed as those that best accompanied oysters were the crisp white wines of the Loire Valley in France.  Pouilly Fume, Sancerre, Muscadet and others have been served with seafoods of the nearby Atlantic coast for centuries.  The Saget family produces each of the favored wines of the area, including this flinty and complex Pouilly-Fume featuring citrus, pear and tropical fruits on both the nose and palate. 

Kim Crawford
2014 Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, NZ
$20.00

Among my tasters are persons who simply adore the clean, crisp character of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough growing region located at the top of the country’s South Island.  Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc offers strong gooseberry character with notes of grapefruit, green apple and mineral – some might say too strong for mild oysters, but aficionados love the pairing. 

Sea Pearl
2014 Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, NZ
$13.00

Sea Pearl is crafted from grapes grown in the southern Wairau River valleys of Marlborough within close proximity to the sea.  The wine is a milder, more oyster-friendly style than the wine above, offering grapefruit, guava, melon and notes of grassy herbs – good value and a great oyster wine. 

Dry Creek Vineyard
2014 Fumé Blanc
Sonoma County
$14.00

David Stare came west in the late 1960s, dedicated to his dream of founding a winery.  His visits to the Loire Valley in France were a guiding inspiration, and he planted Sauvignon Blanc in the Dry Creek Valley in the 1970s – the first vineyard plantings there since prohibition.  The Stare family continues to operate Dry Creek Vineyard as the second generation guides the continuation of winemaking excellence.  One of their signature white wines is Fumé Blanc, offering citrus, zesty mineral, green apple and grassy herbs – a classic pairing with oysters. 

Grgich Hills Estate
2013 Fumé Blanc
Napa Valley AVA
$30.00

Mike Grgich has been making some of the best wines in the Napa Valley for well over 30 years.  Growing perfect fruit, taking impeccable care during harvest and fermentation, and aging to show the wine to best advantage are the keys to his success – easily said, difficult to accomplish.  The Sauvignon Blanc for Grgich Fumé Blanc is 80% of the Musque clone, grown in the southern tip of the valley.  The wine is rich and complex with lemongrass and tropical fruit aromas and flavors with notes of minerality, vanilla and toasty oak. 

Attems
2013 Sauvignon Blanc, IGT
Venezia, Italy
$19.00

It is truly a pleasure to enjoy a Sauvignon Blanc from Italy that exhibits the best of the fruit, offering a great foil to oysters and other seafood.  This refreshing wine shows aromas of gooseberry, green apple and hints of bell pepper and pear.  The palate is assertive with citrus and mineral flavors complementing the oyster then cleansing the palate for the next slurp. 

Chateau St. Jean
2013 Fumé Blanc
Sonoma County
$13.00

Chateau St. Jean is among the most beautiful wineries in all of the California wine country, offering impeccable landscaping and the architectural style of its historic mansion.  The visitor center extends the quality experience with unmatched hospitality.  Chateau St. Jean has been known for its extensive selection of single-vineyard wines, but the humble Sonoma County Fumé Blanc impressed my tasters with fresh, clean character of citrus, apple and mineral that paired equally well with oysters and mussels.
 

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©  July, 2015  Chuck Hill
All rights reserved.  Last revised: 07/27/2015