Helming wine at French-Asian seafood-centered restaurant Fish in Charleston, it's safe to say that GM Jacqueline Orak knows a thing or two about pairing vino with ocean animals. Be it a lobster roll or chili calamari. Below, Orak waxes poetic about traditional and unexpected red, white and rosé wines that best complement oysters.
Q: What kind of wine should I be drinking with oysters? Would red wines ever work? Or just white?
When I think of oysters, the type of wine that comes to mind is always going to classically be white. But in today’s world, there are no rules.
Orak: When I think of oysters, the type of wine that comes to mind is always going to classically be white. But in today’s world, there are no rules. Who would have thought white wine and cheese could go together like red wine and cheese?
Let’s go non-classic with red wine first! When I am thinking about pairing red wine with oysters it should ideally be fresh and lively, not heavy or with harsh tannins. Reds from the Loire come to mind, as well as a Poulsard from the Jura for a more obscure choice, or you could even go with spicy Zweigelts from Austria.
I am a huge fan of Austrian wines! They have come alive in the past 15 to 20 years from relative obscurity to big players and now are on wine lists for three main reasons: 1) the level of wine is incredible, 2) regional identity is present and 3) they are consistent in style (dry) and done beautifully. One of the interesting types, other than the famous whites of Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, is the incredible red grape known as Zweigelt, one of the two most widely planted red grapes in Austria. It is actually a newer grape developed as a cross between Blaufränkisch with St. Laurent. The original name of the grape was called Rotburger, and with such an unpleasant ring to it was changed to honor its creator, Austrian scientist Fritz Zweigelt. The red wine territory in Austria is Burgenland, laying in eastern Austria, south of Vienna and alongside the border of Hungary. Zweigelt wines, like Weingut Höpler Zweigelt ($10), are light and fresh with a glisten that allows them to pair with a wide variety of food. They have an alluring spice with light notes of floral, making them unique and different. They're on the track for discovery now and the lightness makes them amazing reds for summer drinking.
Let’s move on to the next exciting wine—Poulsard from the tiny wine district of Jura, France. This is such a small area with a large number of different styles of wine. Poulsard is a grape that is literally found nowhere else on Earth except outside of a small area in eastern France. It was, at one point, the most widely planted grape, but has fallen second to Chardonnay in the Jura. The main reason for that is due to the nature of the grape’s thin skin. There are pros and cons to this in both the vineyard and the winery during production. Poulsard wines are very lightly colored and can, at times, resemble a rosé wine versus a medium-full body red wine. With this light color pigment, it’s usually blended with its cousin, Pinot Noir (also a thin skinned grape) to allow for more color and extraction. Poulsards, however, are versatile, and the style of red wines made from this grape are excellent with a light chill on them, especially in the summertime! Try Les Chais du Vieux Bourg Poulsard Côtes du Jura ($25).
Wines with harsh tannins and oysters do not go together favorably. You get an interesting, pungent taste that emphasizes the salinity in the oysters versus complementing them.
Crisp, clean white wines are a classic way to bring out the subtle complexity of freshly shucked oysters. There are more eccentric options that work well, which is exciting if you're feeling like breaking the rules and tasting something new. The first classic pairing I suggest is Muscadet—the ultimate oyster wine, such as Château de L'Oiselinière Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie Les Illustres ($23), for its leanness and briny minerality that goes hand-in-hand with the saline essence of the oyster. It’s a match made in heaven!
Wines with harsh tannins and oysters do not go together favorably.
My next classic pairing is dry non-vintage blanc de blancs Champagne or Chablis from France such as Chapuy Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV ($55) and Domaine Servin Chablis Première Cuvée Les Pargues ($25). The cool climates and mineral rich soils keep the fruit juicy and racing with acidity. The tight bubbles in the Champagne are refreshing and the cleanness of the wine’s fresh lifted flavor allows it to work with the briny body of the oyster.
My third classic pairing is Sauvignon Blanc, which offers again a lean, mineral-driven choice such as a Sancerre—a focused wine about intense flinty terrior that can have a creamy, long finish. The acidy will help cut the saltiness and give a smooth finish.
My eccentric pairing is Txakoli from Basque country. It is a fun option that is spritzy with effervescence and quite refreshing. It is very affordable and brings fruit and a nice clean finish. Try Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina ($16).
For another fun wine pairing I suggest a dry and acidic rosé to help balance the oyster’s saltiness, yet not overpower it. For a dry rosé, look no further than France—the ultimate source for the traditional dry style. You cannot go wrong with rosés from the areas of Provence, Rhone or Loire Valley, like Château Castel des Maures Côtes de Provence ($15). Provencal rosé from Southern France is usually pale pink, maybe a salmon color, but not far from that. Profiles are usually strawberry, raspberry and/or citrus with acid. When looking at a rosé from Provence, you will find a wine that is fresh with acid, with no extra sugar to hide the mineral or fruit aromas and flavors. Rosé got a bad rap from White Zinfandel which was mass produced with added sugar. As a result, rosé has been suffering for a long time.