Oysters are a raw, briny, food that can be sweet and full of subtle and delicate flavor. They’re also a summer favorite and because of this and their salinity, they typically pair best with dry white wine, think a French Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or even a Provençal Rosé.
But oysters are versatile, you can have them with bubbles, like Champagne, or even beer. You might try sipping a gin or tequila cocktail at the raw bar, having ginger ale, San Pellegrino, or Perrier if you’re not drinking, or slurping an oyster alongside your sherry.
The most important thing to keep in mind in achieving the best oyster pairing is choosing a drink that doesn’t overpower the flavors in the oyster. Rather, you want something that complements them, and even brings them out. When it comes to wine, this almost always means you want dry and delicate whites that are not over-oaked.
More about oysters
Oysters are always going to have a fresh delicate flavor, and some saltiness, but every oyster is different. That’s because oysters are heavily influenced by where they come from and the conditions under which they were grown. In this respect they are not unlike the grapes that make up wine! If it was a cool summer and the waters didn’t fully warm up, you might find the oysters are sweeter and quite crisp. Oysters raised in warmer waters can be briny, as they typically have more saltiness to them.
The salinity of the water and the temperature of the water affects the overall flavor of the oyster, but there are also differences depending on where they are harvested. You could take an oyster from one place in an estuary and if it’s inland and there’s not a big water flow, the oyster is going to be bigger and rounder. At the head of a bay, where there’s more current, the oysters tend to be longer, and more slender.
How do you serve an oyster?
Oysters are typically served on ice. If you prepare them at home you can simply put them on a plate, just make sure they stay chilled until right before you consume them. This is especially important in summer when outside temperatures are higher and food can spoil. You can serve oysters with pieces of lemon, a mignonette sauce made with shallots and vinegar, cocktail sauce, or even horseradish and Tabasco. Note, some purists say “naked oysters” are best so you can taste the oyster’s full flavor.
5 Oyster wine pairs you should try
A good oyster bar might tell you about the oysters you’re ordering, such as which characteristics or flavors they have, to help you choose the right food drink pairing. Oysters are a delicacy and many people choose wine accordingly. Here are a few to try:
Muscadet is a light to medium bodied dry white wine that’s very crisp and has a lot of citrus lemon flavor to it, as well as minerality and a hint of saltiness. This is why it goes so well with oysters! Muscadet comes from the Loire region of France and the mouth of the Loire River is famous for its oyster cultivation. A bottle of Muscadet might be about $15, and in a more eclectic restaurant, you could find a Muscadet by the glass. You can drink it young, but because it has a good balance of acidity, it can also age well. This means you can have a Muscadet that’s three to five years-old.
2. Sauvignon Blanc
One of the best choices for oysters is Sauvignon Blanc, as most restaurants will have this wine by the glass. Sauvignon Blancs can vary depending on the country they’re from. In New Zealand they tend to be fuller and have more gooseberry flavors to them. They might be fairly forward compared to a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from France, which will be more light citrus and mineral driven. With oysters, you just want to make sure the Sauvignon Blanc is not wood aged so it doesn’t overpower the flavor (for example, you might find one from Bordeaux or Napa is wood aged). Also, note French Sauvignon Blancs, including those mentioned above, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon Blanc, come from the Loire River Valley. All of these wines have good acidity and minerality and go perfect with oysters.
Wine Tip: Always enjoy this white wine chilled as when it gets warm, the flavors go down and the alcohol content rises so you taste more of the alcohol vs. the fruit.
Petit Chablis, Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru are on the more expensive side as they can only be produced in the tiny Chablis region of Burgundy, France. By law they are made from 100% Chardonnay grapes but by tradition you will see no or very little oak aging. These wines are medium bodied, bright, crisp and again have good acidity and minerality. They are fresh and have citrus flavors which is why they pair so well with oysters.
4. Champagne and sparkling wine
Champagne is a sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France. The carbonation in Champagne helps to keep it light and it typically has delicate fruit notes and good minerality. Champagne is bright and fresh and makes a perfect oyster pairing! With oysters, you want something dry, at the Brut level. Keep in mind Brut is the driest category of sparkling wines. You’ll also see “Extra Dry” written on labels but this is actually the sweeter of the two options. Champagne is expensive because, again, it comes from a limited growing area, but a more budget friendly alternative is Crémant, which is made in other areas of France. You can also try Cava from Spain, Prosecco, or Franciacorta, which is Italy’s equivalent of Champagne. You might even open a dry sparkling wine from England or the US.
5. Chardonnay (cooked or fried oysters only!)
This one may be a bit controversial. Nonetheless, given the prevalence of fried oyster dishes on menus across the country, it’s important to highlight how they differ in taste and why you might want that buttery Chardonnay after all. Chardonnay is not the best if the oysters are raw. Particularly a bigger oak-aged Chardonnay will easily overwhelm the complexity of a raw oyster. Nonetheless, Chardonnay makes a perfect pairing with fried food or sautéed oysters in a spicy sauce.
Wine Food Fact: Why do so many classic French wines pair with oysters? French wines tend not to be too high in alcohol and to have more restraint to their flavor, so they feel lighter. They have higher acidity, and aren’t as big and bold, say, as a California wine. A Muscadet or even a Sancerre is fresh and has a lot of minerality, just like an oyster!
More of the best wine food pairings for oysters
By no means does France make the only wine you can drink with oysters. There are a few Spanish whites that work well, including an Albariño from the Rías Baixas region in the northwest of Spain. Albariños are light to medium bodied and have high minerality and good acidity. A Verdejo from the Rueda area of Spain makes a good oyster pairing, or a Manzanilla which is actually sherry from the Jerez region. Manzanilla is a type of Fino sherry produced close to the ocean. It has a little bit of saltiness to it and it’s bone dry, which is why it goes so well with oysters (sushi too!).
From Italy, pair oysters with a white from the Alto Adige region or Friuli. You want small production whites like Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco or Friulano. A Soave from the Veneto area has good minerality and would make a good pairing. Soave is also an easy one to find in your local wine store. Other good wine oyster pairings from Italy are a Gavi di Gavi, a Verdicchio, and from Sicily, a Carricante which is a white wine from the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna.
Germany makes some beautiful bone dry Rieslings which go best with oysters. You could try a Grüner Veltliner from Austria. This wine has citrus, green apple, pear and herbal notes and can be a nice pairing with certain kinds of oysters. From South Africa, look for Chenin Blancs and from the US, Pinot Gris from Oregon, or even an unoaked Chardonnay from California.
Other summer drinks that pair well
- Beer. One of the best drinks for oysters is beer! That being said, some beer can be very high in alcohol and have intense flavors because of the way it’s made. You don’t want to drink anything too complex if you’re having oysters. Rather you want a beer that’s crisp and simple, like a Lager or Pilsner. Wheat beer and Kölsch pair well because they’re not going to overpower the oyster. This is true even if you’re having fried oysters. In fact, the brightness and the freshness of a Lager or a Pilsner beer is an ideal pairing with fried food. Stay away from Stouts or heavily flavored, darker beer.
- Cocktails. Tequila, gin, and vodka based cocktails are great pairings for oysters. Just make sure these drinks have more lemon and citrus to them than berry. Something with herbal notes or hints of cucumber, such as Hendrick’s Gin for example, makes a nice pairing with oysters. Avoid sweet and heavier ingredient cream cocktails, as well as wood aged spirits like Scotch and Bourbon.
- Non-alcoholic drinks. Sparkling water with lime or lemon is a good drink for oysters, as is ginger ale. You’d just want to skip colas or other highly flavored syrup-based drinks.
How about red wine?
Red wine isn’t the best choice if you’re serving oysters, the only exception being if you’ve ordered fried oysters that are served with a really spicy sauce. However, Rosés such as a Rosé from the Provence and Languedoc regions of France make great raw oyster pairings. That’s because most Rosés from that area are usually crisp and not sweet at all.