What you need to know to create the perfect pairings.
Exploring oysters on the half shell has become just as adventurous as sampling wines. Thanks to advances in oyster farming and the growing popularity of raw bars, oyster tasting has advanced to the point of being akin to wine tasting.
Similar to a wine list at an upscale restaurant, an oyster menu at a raw bar can be just as daunting: there are lots of selections with obscure flavor profiles, such as vegetal with hints of minerals and umami. However, just like wine tasting, if you master a few basic concepts, you will be well on your way to getting the most out of your oysters on the half shell experience.
The two most familiar categories on a wine list are red and white, and even the most uninitiated wine drinker knows where to start. With oysters, the two main categories on the list are East Coast and West Coast, but the differences are far subtler. Unlike wines, where a white-wine drinker may learn to appreciate a red wine and vice versa, if you’ve never enjoyed a raw oyster, switching up the selection most likely will not turn you into an oyster lover.
While there are up to 150 types of oysters, East Coast and West Coast oysters have notable differences in appearance and flavor. East Coast oysters tend to have smoother shells and rounder edges and are colored brown, green and white. West Coast oysters have jagged edges with points and are colored pink, purple and black.
As for taste, East Coast oysters tend to be salty with mineral notes. West Coast oysters, depending on the type, vary in salt levels but also introduce flavors not found in East Coast oysters, such as fresh-cut grass, cucumber, watermelon and sweetness.
All raw oysters deserve a perfect wine companion, one that is white and light. To bring out the mineral qualities in East Coast oysters, choose a wine with similar attributes. Chablis fits the bill. Interestingly, the soil in the Chablis region of France actually contains fossilized oyster shells. Another great match for an East Coast oyster is Sancerre. These unoaked Sauvignon Blanc wines from France’s Loire Valley are a product of the region’s chalky soils, which provide the wine’s famed mineral qualities. An unoaked, steely-mineral of a cool climate Chardonnay is also a perfect match, especially when it’s young.
To appreciate the herbal and fruity notes in a West Coast oyster, choose a wine with similar attributes. Spanish Albarino – with its notes of lemon, lime, pear, grapefruit, honeysuckle and nectarine – is a great companion. A Pinot Grigio from northern Italy, renowned for its lemon-lime acidity and aromas of green apple and honeysuckle, is also a perfect choice.
For a truly classic experience, the traditional pairing for raw oysters is champagne. Delicious with any type of oyster, if you are a traditionalist, this pairing is ideal for you.
By Georgene Mortimer, Island Winery
The perfect bottle of hand-crafted artisan wine awaits at Island Winery on Cardinal Rd. , Hilton Head Island. Wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. (843) 842-3141 or islandwinery.com.