Oysters are some of the earliest foods consumed by man—a cave in South Africa explored by anthropologists revealed that humans were enjoying shellfish more than 175,000 years ago. Today, oysters are frequently enjoyed in high-end seafood restaurants, and while we can easily say that consuming these mollusks has evolved into a totally different culinary experience, how to enjoy them continues to mystify many.
To begin with the basics, oysters are defined as an edible marine shellfish with an irregular shaped shell. The oyster, like clams, mussels, and scallops, is an aquatic mollusk that stays closed by a single adductor muscle inside a hinged shell. In the wild, oysters live in coastal waters, forming clusters on older shells, rock formations, piers, and other hard surfaces they can stick to.
Oysters are farmed using a variety of techniques, each having a different effect on how the oyster grows and develops and affecting its flavor. Off-bottom farming discourages pests like barnacles and yields more oysters than the on-bottom oysters found in the wild. Oyster cages act as an artificial reef that the oysters attach to. Bag and rack puts oysters in a bag tied to a rack allowing the oysters to depend on the tide. The Australian long line method has oysters in cages attached to a line and pole system where the cages can be raised out of the water or sit at different levels to control feeding. Oyster farmers will use their preferred method to tease out the flavor profiles they desire from the oyster
Also notable: the kind of oysters that produce pearls (pteriidae) aren’t in the same family as the ones we eat (ostreidae). Pearl-producing oysters live deep in the ocean, whereas the eating kind are near the surface and easier to harvest.
Oyster farming has all but eliminated the old adage about only eating oysters in months that don’t have the letter R in them (May, June, July, August). This used to be advised because refrigeration was unreliable, but the summer months are when oysters are spawning. Avoiding oysters in the summer would give them time to breed, avoid over-harvesting, and avoid the weak flavor a spawning oyster produces. Oysters also taste best when very cold, making winter months ideal for oyster-eating and is the reason they are typically served on a tray of ice.
And while we’ve probably all heard the that oysters are an aphrodisiac (hubba, hubba!), that hasn’t been scientifically proven. What has been, though, is that oysters are high in zinc—half a dozen of them delivers 220% of your daily amount—which is a booster for your sex drive, but also improves immunity, gets rid of acne and rashes, and strengthens bones.
While there are over a hundred varieties of oysters, they all stem from just five main species: Pacific, Kumamoto, European Flat, Atlantic, and Olympia. They differ in size and have different shells. Like wine, oysters have a terroir, called “merrior.” An oyster spends its life filtering between 30 and 50 gallons of water a day, so the water (and the things in it, like salt, minerals, and plankton) that the oyster is exposed to affect its flavor.
The environmental factors involved affect the flavor, size, and texture of an oyster. Different oyster-growing regions impart different flavors to the shellfish. The profile of a West Coast oyster is sweet, round, deep cut, and plump with fluted edges. By contrast, the characteristics of an East Coast oyster include a salty and briny flavor profile—they are narrow and small with a ‘paisley’ shape.
A popular treat since the 1700s, oysters were plentiful and inexpensive in early America. During the 18th century, Americans put pairing booze and oysters on the map, from beer to absinthe in taverns from north to south. Slurping and sipping became all the rage in places like New York City, where oysters were plentiful and consumed by all socio-economic classes, from street carts to high-end men’s clubs.
These days, the ample availability of oysters from coast-to-coast, even in land-locked states makes it easier than ever to keep on shuckin’. But what to drink with those tasty (and expensive) bivalves? And what should you absolutely not drink with the flavorful mollusks? Lots of drinks play well with oysters, but wine is an especially natural pairing. We surveyed a few experts on the matter, and here’s what they had to say.
Kaitlyn Chiletti, Director of Operations and Beverage, Wewatta Point Seafood, Denver
“Pair briny oysters with a fresh, crisp Bourgogne Blanc. The grapes are grown in a cooler climate which gives them a nice natural acidity with the soil adding high minerality. A nice un-oaked Chablis or French Chardonnay works well, too. I like Patrick Puze Val de Mer Bourgogne Blanc from Burgundy, France or Domaine Laroche Saint Martin Chablis 2016. Pair plump and creamy oysters with a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc. These wines burst with acidity and citrus notes. The texture in creamier oysters brings out the fruit characteristics as you sip. Try the Giesen Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or the Jean Max Roger Sancerrre Les Caillottes 2015 from Sancerre, Loire, France.”
Sean Huggard, Director of Operations, Blue Island Oyster Bar, Denver
“I love red wine with oysters, but you must be careful or you’ll ruin both the oyster and the wine. The salinity in the oyster versus the tannins in a big bold red wine don’t work. I always go French—something from the Rhone, like Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvedre— or something that has a bit of viognier, since the floral notes in this varietal match the seaweed, cucumber, and melon notes of an East Coast oyster. I think a really good, very dry white wine with super high acidity and minerality will go well with all oysters, but I specifically like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with West Coast oysters (like Kumamotos) because the tropical notes in the wine, like pineapple and mango are a great companion to the species. With East Coast oysters (which are my favorite), I really love French rose. I like the strawberry and acidity in the wine, which reminds me of a great mignonette.”
Adam Reed, Director of Operations, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, Fort Collins
“As for wines you should never pair with oysters, one might say that heavy red wines—Zinfandel, Syrah, or Cab—may not be a great pairing for oysters. I hate to dissuade people or judge what they like, though. The tannin and/or high alcohol generally found in those wines can be an interesting compliment to the rich, creamy minerality of many West Coast oysters, especially if you’re particularly attracted to those kinds of wines! Yes, a New Zealand Sauvignon Bland and Loire Valley Muscadet or perhaps an Alsatian Riesling or an Italian Pinot Grigio form a great producer are all delightful (if predictable) oyster wines.
Pemaquid Oysters, for example, are a high salinity oyster from Maine with mild sweetness and a grassy-lemon finish. Muscadet Serve et Maine is the quintessential pairing for oysters. Mineral, chalk, and saline qualities are characteristic for this wine and can have notes of unripe apricot and lemon cream. Its delicate nature allows the Pemaquid to shine. Kumamoto Oysters from Puget Sound, Washington, are the Cadillac of oysters and can actually pair quite well with a bright, acidic Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The oyster is plump and creamy with big cucumber and melon notes. One of my favorite pairings with a Kumamoto is Amontillado sherry—it makes a stellar pairing. It has a marzipan finish and a delicate texture allow the maximum flavor. We should all be drinking more sherry!
Jeff Karbula, Manager, Ocean Prime, Denver
“The answer to a pairing for any selection of oysters is a dry sparkling wine. There are many great options that range in price and quality, but the key is a sparkling that is dry and crisp, that will cleanse the palate and leave you craving another oyster! If bubbles aren’t your thing, I’d suggest a Sancerre or a Sauvignon Blanc. Both of these varietals are exceptional with either East or West Coast oysters. The higher salinity of the East Coast oyster tends to lend itself to the crispness of a Sancerre, while the Sauvignon Blanc is a nice pairing that draws out the melon notes in a West Coast oyster. In the end it comes down to personal preference, but the enjoyable part is doing your own tastings with combinations of wines and oysters and discovering what appeals to your own tastes!”
White Burgundy/Chablis – Julien Baillard Chablis 2016
Rhone Red – Domaine Nicolas Croze Les 3 Grains Rouge 2016
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc – Schubert Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2017
French Rosé – Domaine de Belambree Les Ephemeres Rose 2017
Alsatian Riesling – Cave de Ribeauville Collection Riesling 2015
Italian Pinot Grigio – Dantello Pinot Grigio 2017
Dry Sparkling Wine – Michel Gonet Brut Reserve NV
French Sauvignon Blanc – Domaine Desloges Sauvignon de Touraine 2017
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food, travel, and lifestyles writer who has written for publications like 5280, DiningOut, American Bungalow, Reign, Denver Hotel, The Coastal Table, the Huffington Post, Tasting Table, Food 52, Time Out, BBC Travel, Livability, The Cape Cod Travel Guide, Edible Cape Cod, Edible Denver, Edible Lower Alabama, Alabama Journey, The Denver Post, and DRAFT magazine. She is the proud mother of two tiny globetrotters.