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Celebrating the oyster

This is its big moment. And it cries out for a crisp white. Take your pick from France, California and Austria.

December 18, 2002|Rod Smith | Special to The Times

SINCE the beginning of time -- or at least since the invention of the oyster knife -- living, briny oysters have powerfully attracted the sensual predators among us. And in recent years, that attraction seems to have grown stronger, especially in the cooler months, with oysters offered in just about every other restaurant. Here, on the West Coast -- from Point Reyes to British Columbia -- the oyster beds produce some of the best eating in the world.

Which raises the question of which wine to drink with them.

Whites are the easy answer, of course. It's hard to go wrong with a crisp yet full-bodied California Sauvignon Blanc such as Clos du Bois "Sonoma County" (2001, about $9) or Napa Wine Co. "Napa Valley" (2001, about $18).

But you have to be careful. Most other seafood can also pair well with a luscious Chardonnay. Not the briny little oyster. Even the most intensely oceanic oyster is overpowered by rich fruit and oak.

Oysters are at their best with the crispest, most minerally whites. A Pouilly-Fuisse, for example. The weathered clays and gravels in the villages surrounding the mighty limestone monolith called Solutre, in southern Burgundy, yield brilliantly crisp Chardonnay with delicate flinty overtones and piercing minerality. Among my scenarios of heaven would be a frosty bottle of '00 Vincent Chateau de Fuisse (about $20) and a platter of Hog Island Sweetwater oysters from Tomales Bay.

Sancerre is another good match. The purity of Sauvignon Blanc grown on the chalky slopes of the upper Loire Valley makes a striking foil for sea tang. The '01 Hippolyte Reverdy (about $17) has a thrilling high-toned Sauvignon flavor with knife-edge acidity. The '01 Vacheron (about $15) is a little rounder, with a kiss of white peach in the finish. Both meet the oyster on the common ground of intense minerality.

Another classic French oyster wine is Muscadet, from the sandy terrain where the Loire meets the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the old saw that Muscadets don't travel well is true. They lose fruit and zing in transit. But a similar seaboard wine from Portugal, Vino Verde, travels like a vinous Vasco da Gama. The best are made from Alvarinho (the same grape as Spain's Albarino), which is quietly upping its reputation as one of the world's great white varieties. Quinta da Pedra tastes like its name -- "vineyard of stone" -- with a honey-like overlay that complements oysters perfectly.

Austria's new-generation Gruner Veltliners, with their spine-tingling acidity and Alpine spring fruit, are so perfectly suited to oysters it's hard to believe they come from a landlocked country. To choose just one example, the brisk citrus-inflected perfume and stony flavor of the '00 Weingartner Terrasson Thal "Wachau, Austria" (about $11) is a magic combination with oysters.

And then there is sparkling wine -- the classic matchup. My Californian choice is the bold, elegant Roederer Estate Brut "Anderson Valley" (about $18). For a sleek, almost ethereal French connection, try Taittinger Brut (about $30).

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