Terroir. Sense of place. Difficult to precisely define.
In the Oxford Companion to Wine, noted wine critic Jancis Robinson explains: “the major components of terroir are soil (as the word suggests) and local topography, together with their interactions with each other and with macroclimate to determine mesoclimate and vine microclimate. The holistic combination of all these is held to give each site its own unique terroir, which is reflected in its wines more or less consistently from year to year, to some degree regardless of variations in methods of viticulture and winemaking. Thus every small plot, and in generic terms every larger area, and ultimately region, may have distinctive wine-style characteristics which cannot be precisely replicated elsewhere.”
The expression of place is not limited to fermented grape juice. Cheese, chocolate, mushrooms, and bivalves, express distinctive flavor characteristics of their place.
Oysters, in particular, can express unique flavor characteristics of their marine surroundings—salinity of the water, rainfall, types of algae and marshes.
The marine equivalent of terroir is called merroir. I recently spent a weekend exploring Virginia merroir and terroir on the Eastern Shore with the farmers and waterman at the intersection of local aquaculture and viticulture.
The weekend was organized and sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, along with Chatham Vineyards and Shooting Point Oyster Co., to help raise awareness of local aquaculture and viticulture (and the newly established Virginia Oyster Trail).
The merroir portion of the wine and brine weekend started early on a cold, blustery morning at the Shooting Point Oyster Co. sorting and storage facility in Franktown, located on the western side of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, overlooking the Nassawadox Creek.
“More than any other food, oysters taste like where they’re from,” said Tom Gallivan, co-owner of Shooting Point, holding up a Nassawadox Salt oyster shell. “These [Nassawadox Salts oysters] are an expression of Nassawadox Creek—the salinity of the water in the creek, tidal flows and even the types of algae and marsh.”
Gallivan—who started Shooting Point more than a decade ago with his wife, Ann Arseniu Gallivan—was explaining the lifecycle of oyster cultivation and history of Virginia aquaculture to our group of writers and restaurant professionals.
Today the Gallivans cultivate two heirloom oyster varieties—Nassawadox Salts from the Nassawadox Creek in the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay and Shooting Point Salts from Hog Island Bay on the seaside—both expressive of their respective surroundings (the Gallivans also produce a petit oyster called Avery’s Pearls, exclusively available at Ryleigh’s Oyster in Baltimore).
Following the introduction to oyster cultivation, Gallivan led our group on a short walk to the Bayford Oyster House, situated on the edge of the Nassawadox Creek, to meet the proprietor and lifelong waterman H.M. Arnold for a tour of the historic shucking house.
A two-story wood structure built in 1902, now painted blue with a gray tin roof, the Bayford Oyster House is one of the oldest shucking houses still standing in the U.S. At the height of demand a few decades ago, shuckers at Bayford produced up to 200 gallons of local oysters a day.
The days of commercial oyster shucking at the Bayford Oyster House are long gone. Today, the facility is used for soft-shell crab processing during the season and storage other times of the year.
To experience merroir, our group boarded two flat-bottom boats piloted by Gallivan and Arnold and headed west on Nassawadox Creek toward the mouth of the Bay. A few intensely cold minutes after leaving the dock at the Bayford Oyster House (my fair-weather cheeks red and numb from the headwind) we arrived at the Shooting Point oyster grounds, where the salty waters of the Atlantic mix with the marshy waters of the Nassawadox and Church Creek.
Gallivan anchored the boat, attached a cable to an oyster cage just below the surface of the water, fired up the winch and raised a card-table-sized oyster cage filled with brownish-gray Nassawadox Salt oysters onto the deck.
Standing on the deck of an oyster boat, gently rocking side to side on the water, a chilly breeze swirling aromas of salt and marsh, slurping slightly briny, sweet and minerally Nassawadox Salts fresh from the cold water below, brings clarity to the meaning of merroir.
Our time on the Nassawadox was delicious and short. A wine and brine tasting followed by lunch was waiting at Chatham Vineyards, a short boat ride up Church Creek. Winemaker Jon Wehner welcomed us as our boats pulled up to the pier at the edge of the historic Chatham property, which was patented in 1640 under English law.
A short walk from the pier sits the historic centerpiece of the Chatham property—a Federal-period brick home built in 1818 that Wehner’s parents have occupied since purchasing the land in 1979.
Wehner, a second-generation grape grower, and his wife, Mils, planted the first vines—a five-acre block—on the property in 1999 and opened the Chatham winery and tasting room in 2005. Today, the Wehners cultivate 20 acres of vinifera varieties—merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and chardonnay—in the sandy loam soils at Chatham.
The Chatham winery crushpad served as the setting for the day’s wine and brine tasting featuring the Wehner’s terroir star—Church Creek Steel Chardonnay—paired with local oysters.
Three vintages of Church Creek Steel Chardonnay (2011, 2012 and 2013) represented Eastern Shore terroir alongside five different expressions of Eastern Shore merroir: Henderson Brothers Church Creek oysters, Westerhouse Pinks from Westerhouse Creek, Nassawadox Salts, Shooting Point Salts, and H.M. Terry Sewansecott oysters from Hog Island Bay on the seaside.
Like oysters pulled from the waters around the Eastern Shore, Chatham’s Steel Chardonnay—made from grapes kissed by the salty Bay breeze, with roots deep in the sandy soils atop the same watershed as the Nassawadox Creek—tastes like where it’s from.
Church Creek Chardonnay paired with Eastern Shore oysters proves there is truth in the oft-used culinary cliche, ‘what grows together goes together.’
The light citrus, melon, mineral and saline flavors across all three vintages of the Steel Chardonnay complemented the range of sweet and slightly briny to meaty and salty oysters.
One pairing stood out with a transparent expression of place—the 2012 Chardonnay paired with Nassawadox Salts. When tasted together, they evoke a sense of place—the same place.
The fresh melon flavors of the 2012 Chardonnay complemented the up-front mellow sweetness of the Nassawadox Salts. The saline flavors in both the wine and oyster were the same. The acidity of the Chardonnay enhanced, rather than cut through, the brininess and mineral flavors of the Nassawadox Salts. Both offered balance and the same steely, clean finish.
To the extent (local) gustatory equilibrium exists, this is it—Virginia’s truest food and wine pairing.