Oysters, meet your match!
It was a brave man who first ate an oyster.” Jonathan Swift’s words ring in my head each time i suck one into my mouth. I also wonder if it was not a woman. But now that that person has unlocked one of Neptune’s great delicacies for the world to shuck and slurp up, we have to decide exactly what to drink with these briny, mushy and mood-enhancing bivalves. There is tradition and there is experimentation, and i subscribe to both.
As a purist, I take my oysters mainly in the raw, sometimes with a dash of ponzu and tabasco sauce. There is sometimes a garnish of shiso or turnip, and even a shallot mignonette from time to time. But my favorite is simply with a squeeze of lemon. The essential flavor of the oyster quite often gets overlaid and obfuscated by watercress, spinach, garlic and tomato. That fresh flavor of the ocean, salty yet fresh—there can even be a hint of sweetness within—it reminds me of a fresh ocean breeze. It is mushy, but not like a purée. The best oysters are al dente and never slimy, but clean and watery. And there is that “oyster shell” calcareous minerality; also the definition of terroir in many wines.
And it is this salty and mineral flavor I crave, and along with it, several traditional pairings over the decades. First is Chablis. There is more than a sympatico relationship between oysters and Chablis on the table. The soil of Chablis is made up of calcareous limestone—basically an ancient bed of calcified mollusk and bivalve skeletons. It is from this soil that we can derive the essence of oyster shells found in the wine of Chablis. The Chardonnay grape is the noble vector that links this flavor from the soil to our palates, especially when the Chablis is made in an unoaked style. Being one of the more northerly winegrowing districts and cool climes, the generous acidity in Chablis also help cleanse the palate of the saltiness and flesh of the oyster, making the next bite another fresh taste of the ocean. I have also found that it is not the grand crus of Chablis that make the best pairs for oysters. They are perhaps “too great.” They can dominate the dance rather than lead it. For my palate, there is no other greater producer of Chablis than Raveneau. This small Domaine ekes out every single nuance of terroir in its wines and is perhaps the greatest translator of it in the appellation. For oysters, its 2011 Chablis ler Cru “Foret” is the perfect foil. Replete with minerality, citrus, vibrant acidity and an elegant demeanor, it caresses the flavors of the oyster rather than willing it to submission. Dauvissat is another top notch producer and also make a killer “Foret.” And for an everyday drinker, Lavantureux and Fevre both produce lovely wines.
Another traditional pairing is oysters and Muscadet. Produced in the surrounding area of Port city of Nantes at the mouth of the Loire River, Nantes also happens to be a hub for seafood. You can see the connection coming can’t you? Muscadet is ever a dry, light white made with the Melon de Bourgogne grape. It can be slightly effervescent, especially when young, and this is exactly when you want to have it with oysters. Muscadet is blessed with a cool maritime climate thanks to its vicinity to the Atlantic. This ocean air blesses the wine with a salinity and brininess of its own, and it is here where oysters and Muscadet meld together in the palate. My favorite producer is Andre Bregeon. His Muscadet Sevre et Maine mixes minerality and citrus complexities with an even lighter texture than Chablis. The riveting acidity keeps the palate fresh as well. Louis Metaireau is another sure producer, and the same caution applies here: Stick with the young and vivacious Muscadet Sur Lie and Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie. The wines lose some of their buoyancy with age and gain complexity and depth, but with the oysters, the closer you are to the sea, the better the pair will be.
My last and probably my favorite pair with oysters is Champagne. This may be experimental for some, but rest assured that I have sacrificed my palate for yours and can undoubtedly confirm that Champagne does marvels with oysters. Champagne soil, again, is a bed of calcareous rock, which lends itself to a particular minerality in the wine. Champagne intrinsically has a lightness and zesty acidity, coming from a cool climate region. There are dozens of great producers I could recommend, but the one pairing I cannot go without mentioning is Salon Champagne and oysters. The purity and finesse of the Grand Cru Chardonnay in this wine are beguiling. And with oysters, they sing a symphony. Pierre Peters Cuvée Chetillons is another fabulous candidate exhibiting pure elegance.
Oysters and Fino Sherry, even oysters and Stout are more acquired tastes for me. But these three pairings require no bravery. We can all savor the fruit of the original trials time and again.