As much as any drink, wine can taste like where it’s from. This expression of place is called terroir, from the Latin word terra, most often attributed to the French. The soil, topography, and climate of a particular area contributes to, or determines, this expression of place.
This expression of place is not limited to wine.
Oysters also express unique flavor characteristics of their surroundings. Water salinity, marsh, tidal flows, rain, and algae impact the flavor of oysters. The marine equivalent of terroir is called merroir (also, meroir).
Local oysters and wine played a unique role in early Virginia and continue to be an important part of the Virginia culinary narrative.
Today, Virginia is the fifth largest wine grape producing state and the largest producer of fresh, farm-raised oysters on the East Coast.
In November 2015, Governor Terry Mcauliffe officially launched the Virginia Oyster Trail, which includes eight distinct regions that showcase the diversity of the state’s waterways.
While all oysters cultivated in Virginia waters are the same species — Crassostrea virginica — each region has a unique expression of place. The salinity, sweetness, creaminess, and texture differ across each region.
Oysters cultivated in local inlets and rivers paired with wines made from grapes grown in surrounding soils may be Virginia’s truest wine and food pairing.
The following are just a few places to wine & brine in and around Virginia wine country.
— Eastern Shore —
Stretching 70 miles between the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, Virginia’s Eastern Shore is home two wineries and several vineyards (part of the Eastern Shore American Viticultural Area) and numerous oyster farms that comprise regions 1, 2, and 3 of the Virginia Oyster Trail.
Chatham Vineyards. 9232 Chatham Road,
Chatham Vineyards, located in the town of Machipongo on the Bay side, is the wine and brine epicenter of the Eastern Shore. The 32,000 vines planted (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot) in the sandy loam soils at the historic Chatham farm are steps away from Church Creek. Kissed by salty Bay breezes, the vines at Chatham grow in soil atop the same watershed as the Nassawadox Creek (and surrounding waters), which contributes to the expression of place these wines are known for.
Chatham’s Church Creek Steel Chardonnay paired with Nassawadox Salts or Church Creek Corks from Shooting Point Oysters pulled from surrounding waters confirms the culinary cliche, ‘what grows together goes together.’ The melon, citrus, and saline flavors of the Chardonnay pair perfectly with the briny-sweet local oysters.
There are a number of wine and brine events on the Eastern Shore as part of celebrating Virginia Oyster Month including the annual ‘Terroir & Merroir Oyster Extravaganza’ at Chatham Vineyards. This celebration of the Shore’s aquaculture and viticulture will include six different oysters cultivated in nearby waters, clam chowder, and Chatham wines (and live music, too).
Several restaurants in the town of Cape Charles, located about 15 miles south of Chatham Vineyards, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, offer diverse selections of oysters from local waters to pair with local wine and beer. The Shanty Restaurant, situated on the Cape Charles Harbor, offering expansive views of the Bay is a great place to watch the sun set over the water while enjoying oysters from nearby Hungars Creek along with Chatham’s Steel Chardonnay and other Virginia wines. About two miles north of the Shanty is The Oyster Farm waterside restaurant that offers a nice selection of local oysters and wine. Southeast Expeditions offers kayak tours that include visits to clam beds on Cherrystone Creek and Chatham Vineyards.
Visit the Wine & Brine events page for more Eastern Shore oyster and wine tours and events.
— Tidewater —
The Wine & Brine Lounge at Gabriel Archer Tavern, The Williamsburg Winery—Williamsburg
The Wine & Brine Lounge on the patio at the Gabriel Archer Tavern showcases the region’s aquaculture diversity by featuring a different local oyster each week. Guests can also meet local oyster farmers who are on hand to shuck their oysters. Oysters pulled from local waters are even better when paired with wines from The Williamsburg Winery. Try the Wessex Hundred estate-grown Viognier or Acte 12 Chardonnay with the briny and sweet oysters from Gloucester-based Big Island Aquaculture or the Wessex Hundred Vidal Blanc to pair with the salty Pleasure House Oysters. The Wine & Brine Lounge is open weekends through November.
In Virginia Beach, restaurants like Metropolitan Oyster Exchange, Zoe’s, Terrapin, and Commune offer Virginia oysters and wine. Commune, on Virginia Beach Blvd., just blocks from the oceanfront, offers Pleasure House Oysters cultivated in the nearby Lynnhaven River. The Trump Winery Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine, Horton Vineyards Viognier, and Blue Bee Cider Charred Ordinary are available by the glass and pair perfectly with the salty Pleasure House oysters.
For a unique wine and brine experience, consider the Pleasure House Oyster Picnic in the Water. Chris Ludsford, owner and oyster farmer, offers adventurous oyster epicures a ‘river to table’ dining experience at his oyster farm in the Lynnhaven River. The experience includes a boat ride to the Pleasure House Oyster farm in the Lynnhaven where diners stand in knee-deep water (waders provided) at an in-water table while enjoying oysters pulled from the water around them. Guests are encouraged to bring their own bottle of Virginia wine.
— Northern Neck —
Located on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia’s Northern Neck region is bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south. The waterways of the Northern Neck are home to numerous family-owned oyster farms that make up regions 4 and 5 of the Virginia Oyster Trail, eight wineries of the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail, and other oyster trail locations and events that provide local merroir-terroir experience.
Situated on a private peninsula in the charming town of Irvington, the Tides Inn is the wine and brine gem of the region. Here, guests can experience the intersection of the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail and the Virginia Oyster Trail by participating in the Virginia Oyster Academy. The Academy offers a hands-on merroir-terroir educational experience that includes an overview of Virginia aquaculture history and ecology, culinary demonstration, a one-hour harvest excursion with a local waterman and of course an oyster tasting.
The Chesapeake restaurant at the Inn boasts an extensive list of over two dozen Virginia wines to pair with local oysters raw, roasted, fried, or Rockefeller-style. The Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnay would pair beautifully with creamy, mineral flavors of the Rappahannock diploid oysters cultivated in nearby waters. A must visit for a true Virginia Merroir-Terroir experience.
Dog & Oyster Winery—Irvington
Just a couple of miles from the Tides Inn, the Dog & Oyster Vineyard offers fresh shucked oysters on the weekends paired with their estate-grown wines. The plump Windmill Point oysters, pulled from the waters just north of the mouth of the Rappahannock River, pairs nicely with the crisp, citrus Dog & Oyster Vidal Blanc.
Rappahannock Oyster Company and Merroir—Topping
Rappahannock Oyster Company, the largest cultivator of oysters in the region, has an oyster tasting room called Merroir, in the town of Topping (also with locations in Richmond and Washington, DC). Situated on the banks of the Rappahannock River, Merroir serves three Rappahannock Oyster Company oysters — the minerally sweet Rappahannocks from the surrounding river, mild Stingrays from Mobjack Bay, and the briny seaside Olde Salts from Chincoteague. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Barboursville Vineyards are available to pair with the delicious oysters.
Of the many wine and brine events on the Northern Neck, the 2017 Urbanna Oyster Festival on November 3 and 4 is a must for oyster and wine enthusiasts. This year’s event marks the 60th anniversary of the ‘official oyster festival of the Commonwealth.’ The festival offers oysters from across the region and a number of Virginia wine and beers for pairings.
The 5th Annual Fall Oyster Crawl featuring local oysters served at each of the wineries on the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail will be held on November 11 and 12. Ingleside Vineyards will be offering oysters on the half shell and Oysters Denson (topped with parmesan cheese and grilled with seasonings) prepared by Denson’s Grocery and R&B Oyster Bar in Colonial Beach, which would pair nicely with the Ingleside Petit Manseng. General’s Ridge Vineyard will be offering Oysters Rockefeller; pair with the crisp, citrus GRV White Blend.
— Points West and North —
There are no shortage of restaurants, wineries, and events throughout the state to wine and brine (and, ‘cider and brine,’ too). Lemaire restaurant, inside the luxurious Jefferson Hotel in downtown Richmond, offers pearl oysters from Gloucester-based Big Island Aquaculture along with an extensive list of Virginia wines. Pair with Barboursville Chardonnay, available by the glass. In the northern region, Magnolias at the Mill (known as ‘Maggies’ by locals) in the town of Purcellville offers oysters from Eastern Shore-based War Shore Oyster Company to pair with a rotating selection of wines from surrounding Loudoun County wineries. Pair War Shores on the half shell with the lush Chardonnay from nearby Casanel Vineyards or the crisp, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc from Walsh Family Vineyards.
The Virginia Oyster Trail calendar of events is a great resource for a complete list of local Merroir-Terroir festivals and experiences along with information on each of the state’s eight oyster regions.
Please share your favorite Virginia wine and brine experience with us!
A Virginia native, Frank Morgan works in the Legal and Data Privacy group of a global company by day. He is the author of the DrinkWhatYouLike.com wine blog, started seven years ago to chronicle his wine travel experiences and to share stories of the wines, wineries, and winegrowers of Virginia. His site was recently named one of the top wine news blogs by Millesima. Morgan is also a contributor for edibleDC magazine, the wine site Snooth, founder of the monthly virtual wine tasting series Virginia Wine Chat (started in 2013), and is the associate editor of Virginia Wine Lover Magazine, the only print magazine dedicated to the state’s wine industry.
When not writing to raise awareness of the local wine industry or taking Wine & Spirit Education Trust classes, he can be found playing at the park with his daughter or reading his way through every published work of David Foster Wallace. He lives in the Tidewater area.