Skip the cocktail sauce. These 5 white wines are the ultimate oyster partners

Michael Austin
Chicago Tribune
Oysters and a glass of wine make for a classic pairing.

It’s that time of year again, September, and the oyster’s favorite letter is “R.” Or at least it used to be. There was a time when the prevailing wisdom in the Northern Hemisphere was that it was safe to eat raw oysters only in months with an “R” in them. May, June, July and August were out, and September through April was prime oyster-slurping season.

The thinking was that in the hotter months (and, subsequently, warmer waters), oysters spawned. For issues of food safety and general grossness that does not need to be unpacked here, it just was not a good idea to eat oysters harvested during that time of year. Oysters were safer, fresher and more delicious in the cooler months — the months containing an “R.”

I eat oysters all year long because food-safety regulations are stricter now than they were when that rule was made, and fine restaurants everywhere offer fresh, raw oysters all the time. Besides tighter regulations, cold-water oyster farming also contributes to year-round oyster enjoyment.

For all those who love slurping raw oysters straight from their briny, craggy half-shells and following those delicious bites with a swig of refreshing, complementary wine, below are five styles to try. Besides brininess, raw oysters can offer an unctuous, mouth-coating sensation, and these crisp, clean wines have the ability to scrub your palate clean after every slurp, whether you are an oyster chewer (as I am) or not.

With the proper wine complement, nothing more is needed. No red wine vinegar-and-shallot mignonette sauce, no cocktail sauce and horseradish, and certainly no hot sauce.

Chablis. From the northernmost part of France’s Burgundy region, this wine consists of 100 percent chardonnay and is full of bracing acidity due to the area’s cool climate. While Chablis is part of Burgundy, it is separated geographically and actually closer to the Champagne region than to the rest of Burgundy. The chalky Kimmeridgian soil of Chablis is a big contributor to the wine’s unique character. Filled with fossilized seashells today, the soil was once a sea bottom, so it makes a certain sense that grapes grown in that soil would produce wines that pair so well with oysters. Some people call Chablis the quintessential oyster wine, but others might point to Muscadet.

Muscadet. From the western end of France’s cool Loire Valley, near the city of Nantes and the entryway to Brittany, Muscadet is a light wine style made from the grape variety known as melon (pronounced with a short “o” sound and silent “n,” formally known as melon de Bourgogne). The wine takes its name from the musky notes it supposedly offers. Those characteristics aren’t always clear, but Muscadet does offer a touch of oyster-friendly salinity in its flavor profile, along with an occasional touch of effervescence. The common technique of aging wine on its dead yeast cells (known as “sur lie,” pronounced “sir lee”) also imparts a slight creaminess.

Sancerre. Hailing from the opposite end of the Loire Valley from Muscadet — at the eastern end, back near Chablis again— Sancerre is made of 100 percent sauvignon blanc. To complement its naturally high acidity, this wine can offer bright citrus notes along with chalky minerality and the gunflint notes that, not surprisingly, can also be detected in Chablis. Of course, similarly cool climate New World sauvignon blancs, such as the fresh, grapefruit-bursting offerings from New Zealand, and the lime- and pear-kissed bottlings from Chile’s Casablanca and San Antonio valleys, can also work well.

Albarino. Rias Baixas, in coastal northwestern Spain, and its signature grape, albarino, is one of oyster’s best companions when a platter of raw oysters is presented in front of you. Look for both the grape name and the place on the label. These dry, medium-bodied wines are fresh and abundantly fragrant, offering floral notes and lemony citrus, plus everything from apple and pear to tropical fruit, salinity, nuts and sometimes even a touch of bitterness. This is wine that is made for oysters, and when you look at a map and see the region reaching out into the sea, you will know why.

Champagne. Back to France we go and back to the cool northern half of the country for the most all-around-safe food-matching wine on earth. Besides the racy acidity, the stony minerality, the yeast-and-bready notes, and the lime-tinged brightness, Champagne delivers the ultimate palate refresher: tiny, scrubbing bubbles. Raw oysters have an air of abundance about them, and of course, so does Champagne. Lots of other dry, sparkling wine styles (Cava, Franciacorta and Trentodoc, to name a few) can work well with oysters, but Champagne is the top of the heap in every way, most notably in its versatility.