Nothing says summer like oysters and wine al fresco.
If you’re already a fan of raw oysters, then you know the wide range of pleasures the intriguing bivalves offer. If you haven’t yet taken the plunge, you’re in for a sensory ride. Oysters are as varied as their oceanic terroir: They can be crisp or silky, briny or sweet, citrusy or redolent of cucumber. And no matter what the flavor or texture profile, they all beg—aside from the requisite crusty baguette—for just the right wine.
While there are more than 150 varieties of farmed or wild-harvested oysters in North America, there are just five species: Pacific, Atlantic, Kumamoto, European flat, and Olympia.
A tour around the classic U.S. oyster-producing regions turns up the full range of bounty it’s possible for a curious human to experience. Pacifics, Atlantics, and Kumamotos are the most sought-after, and each reflects the place it’s grown. An Atlantic from the Gulf Coast tastes remarkably different from a Massachusetts-grown Atlantic. So, necessarily, the wines that bring out the best in each oyster also vary according to region.
In the Pacific Northwest, pair Kumamotos with chablis
While all oyster species except the Atlantic flourish in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, the classic oyster of Seattle and Portland (and everywhere in between) is arguably the Kumamoto, whose elegant fluted shells are small and deep cupped. The meat is equal parts silky and briny, balanced by distinct notes of sweet honeydew melon.
The best wine to drink with Kumamotos is a crisp chablis from Burgundy; for some local flavor, try an unoaked chardonnay from Columbia Gorge in Washington State or the Dundee Hills AVA in Yamhill County, Oregon. Oaky whites compete too much with the natural fruitiness of the Kumamoto, but an unadulterated chardonnay allows the delicate, melony oyster to hold its own.
In Seattle, stop by Taylor Shellfish for the perfect combo of Kumamotos and chablis. In Portland, any of chef Vitaly Paley’s outposts will do the trick, and there are always many local wines on the list.
Drink champagne or local bubbles with California’s Hog Island Sweetwaters
The San Francisco Bay Area’s classic oyster is a Pacific variety known as the Hog Island Sweetwater, impeccably farmed on Tomales Bay. After harvest, the oysters are purified with UV-sterilized salt water in what Hog Island Oyster Co. calls the “oyster spa.”
The charcoal-colored shells hold sweet, minerally meat that pairs nicely with a bone-dry sparkling wine, like a traditional French champagne made from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes or a brut from the nearby Anderson Valley (Roederer Estate is the best local choice). The tart fruitiness of the bubbles is a great counterpoint to the mineral crispness of Hog Island Sweets.
Get them from the source at Hog Island Oyster Co. in Tomales, California, or one of its restaurant outposts in San Francisco and Napa.
Pair Gulf Coast Oysters with Provençal rosé
There are many varieties of Atlantic, or Eastern, oysters (sometimes called Virginicas), and the Gulf Coast, from Galveston to St. Petersburg, is the only place in the world where oysters grow in relatively warm water. This makes them creamy, rather than crisp, and softer than their West- and Northeast-coast counterparts. And while they’re not typically super-briny, they do embody the essence of ocean: sweetly salty, often slightly savory (think seaweed), and more one-note than nuanced.
The best wine to partner with these flavors and textures, especially given that hot sauce is de rigueur in the region, is a bold rosé, and the herbaceous, bright style of Provence fits the bill. In lieu of that option, go for an Oregon pinot gris, which has notes of citrus zest that contrast with these oysters in a similar way.
Find Atlantic oysters throughout the Gulf Coast at both haute restaurants and dive bars. Destinations include Casamento’s and Pêche in New Orleans; Kimball House in Decatur, Georgia; and Boss Oyster in Apalachicola, Florida.
In the mid-Atlantic, Chincoteagues go best with Virginia vermentino or albariño
Virginia’s native Chincoteague oysters are Eastern oysters that have risen to cult status in the mid-Atlantic, and they straddle the briny-buttery spectrum. They are crisp and clean, with a cucumber throughline, but also pack enough salinity to stand up to a big wine. Their buttery texture complicates the pairing picture in delightful ways.
Luckily, the ecosystem that is so beneficial to the bivalves also has a way with grapes, and Virginia vintners’ experiments with European white wine grapes—especially those from Italy and Spain—have been very successful. You can’t do better than a locally produced vermentino or albariño with Chincoteague oysters, as the crisp, green apple-like flavors in the wines contrast with the silky texture of these oysters.
Go for a muscadet or dry tokaji with Cape Cod’s Wellfleet oysters
For many Americans, the Wellfleet oyster is where it all began. Summers on Cape Cod often include making your way to the seafood market and shucking your own, or foraging for them yourself along the pristine waters of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. They actually grow as far south as Chesapeake Bay and well into Canada’s Maritime Provinces in the north. Wellfleets tend toward umami flavors, including nori and mushroom, and are very briny, due to their cold-water habitat.
The wines that Wellfleets love most are muscadet, which has mineral tendencies that parallel the saltiness of these oysters, and dry Hungarian wines from the Tokaj region, such as furmint, which has a floral and stonefruit nose that intersects with the brininess and provides balance. The Oyster Company in Dennis Port, Massachusetts, and Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine (as well as Boston) are excellent places to begin the exploration.