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Wines for Oysters

Is it better to be neutral or flavorful? Putting wine-and-oyster pairings to the test
Photo by: Harvey Steiman
Step 1: Take selfie; Step 2: Eat the oyster; Step 3: Try the wine pairing.

Posted: Apr 22, 2014 2:17pm ET

I can't help it. I am a wine guy. I want my wines to contribute to the conversation on my palate when I drink them with food. That comes to mind when I occasionally participate in fun tastings such as the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. I joined in on the 20th annual judging as much for unlimited quantities of really good oysters as for the wines, but also to test out a theory.

My brain says, let's find a wine that can stand on its own but also makes nice with the mollusks. Jon Rowley, the tasting's organizer, takes a different approach. "Don't taste the wine first," he admonished us. He wanted us to chew up the oyster first to establish its flavor and texture in our mouths, then wash it down with the wine.

Rowley's impetus for this restriction goes back to a quote from A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway: "As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."

It's a lovely quote. It expresses well the vivifying effect of good food and wine. On the other hand, all Hemingway wanted out of the wine was that it be cold, white and crisp. No flavor descriptors here.

Although I've done this exercise a few times before, I've never properly heeded Rowley's instructions. I always wanted to know how good the wine might be on its own before evaluating how it does with an oyster or two. This, perhaps, is one reason I have always gravitated in my own oyster-eating occasions to crisp Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand, their vibrant acidity and signature citrus and passion fruit flavors a natural parallel to oyster condiments such as lemon juice and mignonette.

The idea is to find wines to sip with raw oysters. Scores and rankings by judges in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles reflect the combination of oyster and wine, not the wine itself. I wondered if maybe my prejudices were getting in the way of discovering other wines for oysters. Was I missing the joys of cold and crisp by insisting upon flavor?

I tried it Rowley's way. No smelling or sipping the wine first. I didn't even reach for a glass without a chewed-up oyster in my mouth. Tasting blind, I did not try to identify the varietal, just how well it all worked together with the Shigoku oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms. (Shigoku is a tumbled oyster, allowed to roll around with the tides, forming a deep cup and a plump oyster.) I used no condiments. Just the oysters—deliciously creamy and juicy, by the way—and the wines.

Although I would guess most of these wines alone would rate in the high 80s on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, I did not attempt to score them, only the matches. That clarified, here are my notes on my top five picks:

First, Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc Columbia Valley 2013: Its freshness and grapefruit flavor notes register brilliantly with the oyster's mineral notes. A mouthwatering finish calls for another oyster, and another sip, and …

Second, Sebastiani Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County 2013: Open-textured, its grapefruit notes come through on the refreshingly balanced finish and clean the palate for more.

Third, King Estate Pinot Gris Oregon Signature Collection 2012: Fresh, bright flavors of quince and lemon pop through the creamy oysters, completing the picture nicely.

Fourth, Van Duzer Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2013: Dry and steely, a balance that feels right, a flavorsome, savory wine that adds a refreshing element to the mildly briny oysters.

Fifth, Kenwood Pinot Gris Russian River Valley 2012: This plus the oyster creates a flavor riot in the mouth, a vivid match that sings of creamy pineapple, guava and lime flavors without overpowering the oyster's character.

For the record, all of those wines made the consensus top 10 except for King Estate Pinot Gris. The others were Acrobat Pinot Gris 2012 and Foris Pinot Blanc 2012 from Oregon, Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc 2013, and Revolution Wines Chenin Blanc 2013 from California, and Lost River Pinot Gris 2013 from Washington.

Mark Horowitz
New York, NY —  April 23, 2014 10:49am ET
I've made several visits to the town of Cancale, in Brittany, a center of the oyster industry in France.
There, one can enjoy a plate of oysters at a table overlooking the harbor. Most natives enjoy their oysters with a bottle of Gros Plant sur lie, produced in the nearby Pays Nantais, and a neighbor of the Muscadet region. Crisp, steely, with mild fruit, it is a perfect companion to Cancale oysters. And, at a few euros a bottle, a bargain.
Wimberly Miree
Birmingham, AL, USA —  April 23, 2014 7:07pm ET
After experimenting on and off with a wide variety of wines with oysters for a good 40 years, I finally settled a few years ago on Champagne as my favorite accompaniment. The acidity and minerality of Champagne enhances the delicate oyster flavors, and the relatively light flavor of the Champagne allows the delicate oyster flavors to predominate. I totally agree with Harvey Steiman's recommendation to follow the oyster with a taste of the wine.
Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  April 23, 2014 7:15pm ET
Was Shigoku oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms the only oysters paired with the above mentioned wines? I find pairing wine with more than one varietal/kind/species can be difficult challenge.

I love the selection of oysters, as well as, other shellfish from Taylors. They're not only the freshest I can get but also located practically in my backyard!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 23, 2014 9:31pm ET
Yes, they were all Shigoku oysters. Usually they use kumamotos. But the early spring has made them less consistent this year.

Brinier oysters, such as eastern flats, do change the equation. I like Champagne with them myself.
Dimitris Batzelis
GREECE —  April 24, 2014 8:48am ET
A very nice pairing to oysters is also Asyrtiko from the island Santorini in Greece.
Jack Rhind
Bermuda —  April 24, 2014 12:07pm ET
I like the suggestions above. Another nice pairing is a great Chablis.
Jeffrey Spurlock
Marlborough, New Zealand —  April 24, 2014 5:40pm ET
Excellent article, Harvey. Having moved to Marlborough to pursue my dream of making wine, I would have liked to see how Malborough Sauvignon Blancs would have done in the lineup. Most of the preferred wines in the competition had a pineapple/tropical component, which often takes a back seat to the citrus/flint notes of their Marlborough counterparts. Like Wimberly, I also gravitate towards Method Traditionalle (Method Champenoise) with oysters. Then again, I like my oysters with a smidge of horseradish and a dash of Tabasco!
Jim Mason
St. John's, Canada —  April 25, 2014 9:38am ET
I agree with Wimberley that a dry sparkler is a great pairing. I also love Verdicchio with oysters, that bracing acidity works well with briny oysters like Malpeques.
Alison Napjus
New York, Ny —  April 26, 2014 3:39pm ET
Thanks for the technique tips Harvey--very interesting. When I'm in Champagne, they say their bubbly is the perfect pairing with oysters, in the Loire, it's Muscadet, of course. In Beaujolais they told me cru Bojo from Julienas was a classic match, and in Bordeaux it's Sauternes. So I guess the world is our oyster (pardon the pun) when it comes to wine and food pairing with our favorite harvest from the sea!
Drusiano Scerbo
North Carolina, USA —  April 28, 2014 10:25pm ET
Oysters are enhanced by the salinity, minerality and tangy acidity of white wine from Abruzzo, Italy. Try the Pasetti Pecorino or Trebbiano or a combination of both like Pasetti 'Tenutarossa' Bianco Colline Pescaresi IGT, Abruzzo, Italy, these wines will make these oysters sing.
Ira Mittelman
Apalachicola, florida —  April 29, 2014 9:24pm ET
being a chef in Apalachicola known for having some the world's best oysters, I usually try to steer my customers toward an "grassy" sauvignon blanc or a glass of terlato pinot gris

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