Bring on the Oysters!
And the Pairings
By Ann Marie Thornton
One thing I love about winter in North Carolina is having the phone buzz and a friend saying, “Hey, we’ve got oysters……come on over!” Early in the season, November and December oyster roasts tend to be planned weeks in advance in concert with big holidays…Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s. But in February and March, they are more likely to be impromptu affairs initiated by someone driving back from the coast or otherwise seizing an irresistible opportunity to indulge in oysters. Before you know it, there’s lots of oysters that have to be eaten quickly, good friends gathering, and everyone contributing a dish or some libations to round out the meal. My husband David and I often volunteer to bring beverages. While “drink what you love” is often our motto, we take great delight in debating “perfect pairings.”
If we were dining at a white tablecloth restaurant sharing a plate with a variety of oysters ranging from Prince Edward Island to Long Island Bluepoints and tiny Wescott Bays from Washington State, I might opt for a dry/brut Champagne, but at a local gathering, the oysters are likely to be the large, briny ones from North Carolina’s Stump Sound or Harkers Island.
All that briny goodness calls out for minerality, light-body, and acidity. Cooler regions produce more acidic wines, so think about white wines from northern France or Germany such as Chablis, Sancerre, Muscadet and Riesling, or perhaps a dry cider. We’re opting for wines and ciders not aged in oak, since oak tends to mellow and soften wine, and with oysters, we are seeking crisp, bright, youthful acidity.
Not far from the cool terroir of Champagne, in the northwest corner of Burgundy, lies Chablis, an area known for crisp French Chardonnay with white flowers, citrus, green apple and a brisk minerality. Rarely aged in oak, Chablis has a bright, clean acidity that pairs wonderfully with oysters. The Kimmeridgian soils of Chablis have limestone and marine fossils, possibly the shells of long-ago oysters, which may contribute to the beautiful minerality of the wine’s long finish.
Sancerre, another classic crisp French white wine but from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, rather than Chardonnay, offers a flinty minerality and notes of citrus. This crisp white from the Loire Valley not only balances the salinity of the oysters, it also refreshes one’s palate, is delicious with oysters, and keeps you coming back for just one more succulent slurp.
While Pacific Coast oysters are often described as sweet or even creamy, East Coast oysters are saltier and generally more briny. If we wanted a hint of creaminess with our locally-caught NC oysters, we might reach for a Muscadet, another crisp French white from the Loire but made with the distinctive Melon de Bourgnone grape and a technique of aging the wine on the lees of the yeast. This aging process, called sur lie aging, imparts a yeasty, biscuit-like, creaminess to the wine, softening its considerable acidity and tartness.
A dry Riesling from the Mosel valley in Germany (look for Trocken/dry on the label) or New York’s Finger Lakes would also fit the bill. Riesling is powerfully aromatic, with a nose of stone fruit, apple and pear, sometimes lime or jasmine, and a distinctive note of petrol, the key to identifying it in blind tastings. The citrus notes in Riesling also compliment the spritz of lemon that often accompanies oysters, and the wine’s acidity helps counterbalance zesty cocktail sauces.
Dry, sparkling ciders also offer delightful acidity, and their bubbles give extra lift to aromas and zip to the mouthfeel and finish, much like Champagne. These wine-like ciders often have rich aromas of baked apple, lemon curd, and tropical fruit, and a few have mineral or herbaceous notes, too. As an added bonus, cider has about half the alcohol content of wine which makes it a nice option as a lighter, yet still elegant and celebratory, beverage. Ciders from cooler New England naturally tend to be more acid-forward than those from Virginia or North Carolina, but even Southern ciders have plenty of acidity to balance the salinity of oysters and refresh the palate.
With so many delicious choices, discovering a “perfect pairing,” needs only an opportunity, so bring on the oysters!