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When to Eat Oysters

"He was a bold man that first ate an oyster," satirist Jonathan Swift famously wrote. These morsels are now much loved, but they taste the best during certain months. Here's why, and which wines enhance these seasonal treats.

Oysters are named after their geographic region of origin, because their flavor has mostly to do with the water that filters through their bodies. For example, one from Florida's Apalachicola Bay tastes very different than one from Long Island Sound, and an oyster from Sydney, Australia, lands on the palate unlike one off the coast of Ireland.

The Reason Behind the Rule

Warm months are the spawning season for oysters, and the shellfish are traditionally thought to be less appealing during this period, as they become soft-bodied and bland. In the Northern Hemisphere, the unpleasant condition led to the "R Month" rule -- oysters should be eaten only in months with names containing the letter "R." These days, oysters are flown in from the Southern Hemisphere (where June through August are the cold winter months) and the far north Canadian shores, making optimal product available year-round.

Oysters are eaten raw, smoked, boiled, baked, fried, roasted, stewed, steamed, broiled, grilled and even pickled. Purists insist that simple is better, including raw, on the half shell or with little or no sauce or other garnishment.


Work the Whites

No matter the preparation, these simple sea creatures are best paired with aromatic white wines. Along the Atlantic coast of France, fresh raw oysters are traditionally served with the crisp local Muscadet -- a pairing that has become a classic with food and wine aficionados everywhere.

Most French Muscadet comes from the Loire Valley, with its vineyards just a few miles from the north Atlantic coast. When it's good, Muscadet has a signature freshness (some call it "grapey") that is invigorating and slightly citrusy, laced with mineral notes. The best variety comes from the Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine appellation (wine region) of the Loire, and it is priced in the very affordable $10-$15 range.

In addition to Muscadet, raw oysters are wonderful with an assortment of bracing and tangy white wines -- Chablis (the unoaked versions), Champagne, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, and Sauvignon Blanc are all good candidates. The idea is to play up, rather than cover up, the briny, complex flavors of the oysters. The ideal oyster wine flavor is equivalent to a squirt of fresh lemon: bright, fruity, tangy. Stay away from wines that could be described as creamy, oaky or vanilla-tasting.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a particularly happy pairing for oysters, with its signature racy citrus and tropical fruit flavors and snappy finish. France's most famous Sauvignon Blanc is Sancerre, and it is also a delicious oyster match, offering a distinctive mineral character not altogether unlike the Muscadet. California Sauvignon Blancs are often not as well-suited for oysters, but there are some citrusy versions that work just fine.

Champagne is a natural partner for oysters, especially when a celebration is in order. Again, look for a crisp, lemony style of Champagne and stay away from the heavier, yeasty and vintage versions. Generally speaking, a blanc de blanc is the way to go here, with its lighter, more delicate flavors.

Stay Away from the Chardonnay

Chablis is the steely, mineral-laced Chardonnay from France's famed Burgundy region, and it is an elegant match for oysters. But other than Chablis and the blanc de blanc Champagnes (which are made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes), Chardonnay is generally not considered a good oyster wine. Its ripeness, full-bodied weight and customary oak aging make it too big and dominant for the delicate oysters. However, there are a few so-called "unoaked" Chardonnays coming out of Australia these days that do fit the bill nicely.

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