WINE FOR THE BRINE

RICHARD EHRLICH'S BEVERAGE REPORT
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The Independent Culture
In Idle moments I fantasise about the Great Oyster Experiment. Apparatus: boxes of iced oysters from all over the world. Method: seat me at a table with an expert oyster-shucker, his or her knife in hand. Objective: determine how many oysters I can eat at one time.

Dream on, as the saying goes. But it's an extremely pleasant dream, especially now the months all have an R in them, and made even more pleasant by thoughts of what I'd use to wash down my briny excess.

Oysters have two natural partners, and both are easily identified. The first is Muscadet, which is an interesting wine because it is not particularly interesting. Muscadet is crisp, light and refreshing, but never exceptional. And this is its virtue in an oyster-fest: the absence of pronounced character makes it a perfect foil for their briny, mineral-rich flavour.

Good Muscadets have the words "sur lie" on the label. This denotes a wine bottled directly from the sediment (lees) left by the fermentation yeasts, which gives richness and a slightly prickly mouth-feel. For something a cut above, smaller merchants and chains are the place to go. Try Domaine de la Fruitiere (pounds 4.99 from Fullers, 0181 996 2048) and Domaine de la Cognardiere (pounds 4.85 from Anthony Byrne Fine Wines, 01487 814555).

Oyster wine number two is Chablis, the featherweight champion of white Burgundy. You don't need the finest examples when the starring role is played by Ostrea edulis; indeed, lower- or middle-range Chablis should be the object of your affection here.

The Chablis hierarchy contains a straight AC, a dozen premiers crus and seven grands crus. Those classifications mean much less than they once did. Some producers give the name premier cru to undistinguished wines selling for inflated prices. Worse still is the steady expansion in production, into sites yielding wine that's thin, sharp and nasty.

Some producers try to mask poor quality by over-oaking, which is inimical to the true Chablis character. Chablis is lean, steely, flinty, mineral, almost austere. When oak is used, it should leave those qualities intact.

With so much dull Chablis around, be prepared to spend pounds 7 to pounds 8 for an ordinary AC. Familiarise yourself with the good producers and look for their names. Here's a start: Louis Michel, Dauvissat, Laroche, Etienne & Daniel Defaix, Vocoret, Alain Geoffroy, Jean-Pierre Grossot, and the co-operative, La Chablisienne.

You're more likely to find wonderful stuff at an independent merchant than in the high street. Lay & Wheeler (01206 764446) has a particularly good selection, and through October they're offering an excellent discounted case (pounds 129.50 from pounds 147) featuring some of their best. I tried two, a Chablis 1994, Etienne Defaix and a Chablis Premier Cru 1995, Domaine de la Varoux. The premier cru was truly magnificent stuff, but the clean lines of the "ordinary" AC make it a better drink with oysters.

In the high street, head for Oddbins, while La Chablisienne wines are widely available from M&S, Tesco and others.

And finally, some drink Guinness or cham-pagne with oysters, others use them both to make Black Velvet. My views are: Guinness: good on its own, but better in Co. Cork than in Carshalton; champagne: it'll drown in the brine; Black Velvet: a remarkable invention which ruins two great drinks. Stick to Muscadet or Chablis. And invite me over next time you have a few hundred oysters in the house.

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