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Love ‘em or hate ‘em, oysters conjure up images of summer decadence. Smooth sailing with glistening plates of freshly shucked oysters-on-the-half-shell and crisp glasses of bubbling champagne. But which wines actually pair best?
A Quick Look at Pairing Wine with Oysters
- Raw Oysters pair best with Sparkling White Wines
- Cooked Oysters pair best with Crisp White Wines
- Smoked or Fried Oysters pair best with Heavier White Wines or Scotch
Humans have been eating oysters for thousands of years. (Though they do beg the question, “who was the first person brave enough to eat that?”) Australians found some discarded oyster shells that date back ten thousand years!
These bivalves live in shallow water beds on coasts and filter water as they feed. Huge colonies once existed all over the American coast, especially in New York’s Long Island. At one point, New York’s street vendors sold freshly harvested oysters by the basket!
Once you make it past the rough, pear-shaped shell of these mollusks, you’ll find a porcelain white interior and…the oyster! Oyster meat is plump, briny, with a delicate earthy flavor and surrounded by a salty brine.
Once a seasonal treat, oysters are now safely and sustainably farmed year-round. So you can enjoy your favorite treat at any time of the year! Not only that, but they are rich in many minerals and nutrients like iron, protein, zinc, and calcium.
Types of Oysters
With over 200 varieties of oysters, we ought to devote some time to discussing types. The oysters we eat are part of the Ostreidae family. And there are really only five varieties that we eat regularly: Pacific Oysters, Kumamoto Oysters, European Flat Oysters, Atlantic Oysters, Olympia Oysters.
East Coast vs West Coast Oysters
Remember the old adage “you are what you eat”? Well that applies to oysters!
Because these bivalves feed on algae and by filtering water through their gills, they absorb the characteristics of the water around them.
Sound familiar? Just like wines have terroir, oysters have something called “merroir!”
This is why there’s such a distinct difference in taste between oysters from different areas. And it explains why oysters are often labeled by region on menus! Within the United States, the main choice is between East Coast Oysters and West Coast Oysters.
- East Coast Oysters tend to be salty, chewy, and minerally. Their shells are smooth, narrow, shallow, and have a “paisley edge.”
- West Coast Oysters tend to be sweet, plump, and Their shells are rough, round, deep, and have a “fluted edge.”
Common East Coast Varieties:
- Blue Point (Long Island)
- Chesapeake Bay (Maryland/Virginia)
- Malpeque (Prince Edward Island)
- Nantucket (Massachusetts)
- Wellfleet (Cape Cod)
Common West Coast Varieties:
- Aurora (British Columbia)
- Emerald Cove (British Columbia)
- Hog Island (California)
- Kusshi (British Columbia)
- Kumamoto (Washington)
- Wescott (Washington)
Oysters in restaurants come in a variety of forms. If you’re ordering cooked oysters (fried, oysters rockefeller, wrapped in bacon and smoked, etc.), you’re probably fairly safe. If you’re ordering raw oysters, they’ll typically be served shucked and on the half-shell.
A fresh oyster should look slightly blue-grey in color, though some will be slightly black or green based on what they ate. They should smell salty and like the ocean, but you shouldn’t notice anything particularly fishy.
Buying oysters yourself? They’ll typically come in whole shells that you’ll shuck. Otherwise, they’ll come in tins or packets of shucked oysters and brine. Keep in mind the correct color and smell and you should be fine!
There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to avoid a “bad oyster” all your life, even with precautions. Some oysters are infected with toxic bacteria, and that is a risk. But fortunately the infection is very rare and if you do get it, most people recover within 24 hours. So don’t let it stop you from eating some delicious oysters!
Pairing Wine with Oysters
White wine, sparkling or still, is the classic pairing with oysters. The high acidity and naturally crisp style pairs perfectly with fresh seafood.
But in this modern age, you can really pair them with anything you want, even red wine!
The real key is to avoid anything overly heavy, oaky, or tannic. Flavor and structure of your wine should be light otherwise you’ll overwhelm the oyster.
If you’re eating raw oysters, you want something that is very dry and has high acidity. Imagine squeezing a spritz of lemon over your shellfish. That’s what you want your wine to do!
But remember, oysters can also pair with other drinks like gin gimlets, pilsners, scotch, or even absinthe! It all depends on the serving style and your own preference.
White Wines to Pair with Oysters
Highly acidic and bone-dry, Muscadet is everything you could want in an oyster pairing. You’ll get plenty of green fruit notes like lime, apple, pear with hints of lemon and golden apple as well.
There’s almost no fruit-forward character, so you’ll have nothing to distract you from the delicate minerality of your oysters. If there’s a drink that counts as a spritz of lemon, this is it! (Plus, you can find good quality Muscadet for around $15 in most areas!)
2018 Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu Clos de la Fine Sur Lie (Jérôme Choblet)
Excellent and fine quality wine with notes of stone fruits that make it a little exotic. It’s an intense muscadet with strong minerality and a yeasty, bread-like quality from aging on the lees. A really exceptional choice for oysters-on-the-half-shell.
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Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect summer seafood wine. Light, crisp, heavy on acidity, and a bit herbaceous, there’s a Sauvignon Blanc for any summer occasion. The high acidity and lemon notes make them particularly good for pairing with raw oysters.
Try to choose a Sauvignon from cooler regions. A light, crisp Sancerre from France or a lemony Sauvignon from California would be perfect. Sauvignon Blanc from warmer regions will have a much stronger tropical flavor. While it won’t necessarily clash with oysters, the best pairing is highly acidic and “green.”
2016 Proud Pour Sauvignon Blanc “Save the Ocean”
Proud Pour was actually created as an oyster-pairing wine. It’s light, acidic, with a sweet fruity front and a grassy finish. What an even better reason to drink it? Proud Pour dedicates a portion of its profits to ecological restoration of oyster beds and marine life!
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A Spanish wine that screams summer, you’ll find most Albariño to be full of citrus zest and energizing zip. You’ll also taste a bit of white nectarine or peach and occasionally some grapefruit notes.
There’s a very faint hint of honeysuckle and some floral bitterness to finish, which makes for a very dry and refreshing glass. Albariño goes with anything summery and seafood-y from seared scallops to ceviche to fish tacos to, you guessed it, oysters!
2019 Pazo Torrado Albariño
An exceptionally floral version of Albariño, Pazo Torrado has strong fruit-forward notes of peach, apricot, and the classic spritzy lemon acidity. But you’ll get strong bursts of white flowers like jasmine, gardenias, and honeysuckle. Faint ocean breeze notes in a dry, refreshing glass. Like sitting in a summer garden by the sea…with a plate of oysters of course!
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A bit of overlap here as the Vinho Verde DOC of Portugal also produces a version of Albariño called “Alvarinho,” though they also grow many other white grapes. The Portuguese region of Vinho Verde is noted for producing exceptional light, dry, zesty white wines.
They have a bit more green melon and sweet fruit character, but the classic acidity is still present. And you’ll note that many bottles of Vinho Verde actually contain a bit of natural carbonation. If you’re looking for a hint of natural spritz, Vinho Verde is the way to go.
Maria Papoila Vinho Verde
An excellent easy sipper that adds spritz without taking away from the natural flavor of the oysters. The carbonation in Maria Papoila is very faint, just enough to add some extra zest. There’s a bit more fruity character here in green herbs and gold apples, so it’s excellent to pair from oysters straight into a main course without changing wines.
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Probably the first image that popped into your mind when you saw “wines to pair with oysters,” right? Champagne is a classic seafood appetizer wine and it pairs exceptionally well with oysters! Most Champagne has a yeast, bready flavor that adds some depth to pairings.
And the typical lemony flavor and fine bubbly texture fits perfectly with creamy plump oysters. If you’re looking for classic and classy, Brut Champagne is the way to go!
Jacques Lassaigne “Les Vignes de Montgueux” Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut-NV
A classic but relatively affordable Champagne made from Chardonnay grapes. Very mineral and lemony palate with yellow fruits and delicate white flowers. An excellent aperitif and appetizer wine!
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Fino Sherry is particularly dry and pale compared to other varieties. You’ll find it incredibly light-bodied and seafood-friendly, as long as it’s served chilled! As a coastal wine you’ll notice it pairs very well with the salt brine in oysters. And the nutty character of fino sherry pairs well with the more earthy notes of some oysters. It’s a unique and unexpected pairing, but it works exceptionally well.
2019 Gonzalez-Byass “Una Palma” Fino Sherry
An aged version of the typical Tio Pepe (which is also a lovely choice for oysters!), you’ll find much stronger notes of salted nuts and yeast bread in this bottle. Perfect for pairing with briny or sweet oysters alike!
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Red Wine: Beaujolais
If you absolutely must have a red wine with your oysters, go for something very light and refreshing. Beaujolais is the perfect option. Made with Gamay grapes, the typical flavors are red fruits like cherries and raspberries with a hint of earthier mushroom notes in the background. Almost no tannic structure and relatively high acidity mean you’ll keep your palate refreshed.
2018 Saint-Amour Domaine de la Pirolette
Domaine de la Pirolette is a light, perfumed, fruity wine with a bit more density and earthiness than you’d normally expect with a Beaujolais. Full of berries and very summery.
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Fun Oyster Facts:
- Oysters have terroir just like wine. It’s called “merroir.”
- There are over 200 varieties of oysters. But only 5 main types we eat!
- Pearl oysters are a different species from edible oysters. Pearl oysters live deep in the ocean, while oysters we eat live in shallower oyster beds in harbors and bays.
- Most oysters change gender at least once in their lives.
- Wild oysters actually taste better in the winter! Harbor waters are colder in winter, which is when oysters really thrive. Oysters also spawn in the summer, so they tend to be less focused on eating and lose some flavor.
- Oysters can filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water a day. (Maybe New York Harbor should put out a job listing at the local oyster bed…)
- Oysters have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. While they won’t actually increase your sex drive, they provide around 200% of your daily recommended zinc. And zinc does increase libido! Those old wives’ tales sometimes ring true.
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Appetizers: Bread and butter, bacon, other shellfish (scallops, mussels, shrimp cocktails), spinach, mushrooms, grilled corn, and tropical fruits
Main Dishes: Lobster, Grilled or Steamed Fish, Roast Pork Loin, Seared Steaks
Classic condiments for oysters-on-the-half-shell include mignonette (vinegar and onion), fresh lemon wedges, cocktail sauce, and horseradish. But there are a number of options here, so don’t get stuck in a traditional route. Try hot sauce, wasabi, ginger, or butter sauce as well.
Both texture and flavor are at play here. The fine bubbly texture of the champagne highlights the silky, smooth, creamy texture of the oyster. While the lemony flavor in champagne highlights the brine and earthiness of oyster meat!
Scotch, absinthe, and beer are all good oyster-pairing options! For cocktails try the gin gimlet or a martini. And anything light with cucumber will pair well with sweeter, cucumber-y West Coast Oysters.
There’s a rumor that you’re supposed to swallow the oyster whole and let it just slide down your throat. How pointless! Do try to get the whole oyster, plus brine, into your mouth in one go. (Whether you use an oyster fork or slurp it off the shell is up to you.) But do chew it once or twice before swallowing to get the flavor!
If you’re eating wild oysters, they are in season in the winter when the cold waters encourage growth. (The old adage that you should not eat oysters during months that don’t have an “r” applies here.) But with modern farming and sustainable growing methods, you can now eat oysters “off season” in the spring and summer as well!
White wine and oysters will always be a classic pairing. Go for something light, crisp, and acidic to bring out the earthy brine of freshly shucked oysters. If you’re cooking your oysters, you can choose a slightly heavier wine to complement your style. A Viognier, Vouvray, Chablis, or even unoaked Chardonnay would work, especially for fried or smoked oysters.
And these days, don’t shy away from more unique pairings either! Really, it’s all up to your own taste buds. And if you’re an oyster fan, there’s probably not much you won’t try!