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Pairing with [Raw] Oysters: Chablis vs Etna [Bianco]

Written by Simone Popov · 5 min read >

If you told a ten-year-old me that I would grow up to adore oysters, the tiny mollusks with a membranous texture resembling mucous, I would have looked at you askew. Yet oysters served raw with a zesty mignonette have become an absolute favorite of mine in my older years, and I know I’m not the only one.  

But what is the best pairing for raw Oysters? White, high-acid wine is a must, as it can refresh your palate and lift the briny and sometimes creamy flavors of the seawater mollusks. Having a wine of equally salty quality can also balance flavors and enhance your oyster-slurping experience. One can go to Champagne, Muscadet, Albariño, Aligote, Assyrtiko, and even Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling for their perfect pairing.

 For me, however, there have been two exceptional wines that I have always reached for in accompaniment to Oysters: the classic Chardonnay from Chablis and the more “under-the-radar” Carricante from Mount Etna. For this article, I put these two wines from vastly different regions to the test and see which one is best (in my humble opinion) to sip on with oysters.

The Test

The premise is simple: take two bottles each of Chablis and Etna Bianco, one of a higher price (around $70-$80) and another in a more affordable range ($30-$50). Then buy some oysters and make some shallot lemon mignonette. I would first taste the wines individually, without the pairing, and evaluate their quality. Then, I would taste the wines with the oysters and see if the pairing has improved the overall experience. But before we jump into the wines, I wanted to briefly highlight the growing conditions for Chardonnay grown in Chablis and Carricante grown on Mount Etna.

Chablis: the Terroir

Chablis is on Kimmeridgian soils, essentially on fossilized oyster shells, remnants of an ancient sea-bed. Though the soils (as it has been proven multiple times) don’t impart direct flavors to the wine, Chablis is still synonymous with “crushed rock and oyster shell minerality.”  The region experiences a semi-continental climate, with oceanic influences that reach from the western coast of France. The land is mainly flat, with just some minor hills throughout the region, allowing for cold currents from the Atlantic to settle.  

Etna: The Terroir

On the other hand, Carricante, the highest quality grape in Sicily, grows on the volcanic soils on the eastern side of Mount Etna, just 35 km (approx.) from the Mediterranean Sea at heights above 1,000 meters. The breezes from the sea, the elevation, and the poor volcanic soils come together to form a wine of high acidity, minerality, and edge. Due to its Southern location, Sicily has a Mediterranean climate, receiving ample sunlight and warmth. Still, the high elevation in which Carricante is grown mitigates the heat and balances the acid and fruit expression.  

The Tasting

From the Chablis side, I have selected the 2021 Eleni & Edouard Voceret Chablis “Les Pargues” and 2021 Moreau Naudet Chablis Premier Cru Montmains. From the South of Italy, arrive 2022 Benanti Etna Bianco and 2021 Girolamo Russo San Lorenzo Bianco. These four wines, from up-and-coming and established producers alike, represent (in my opinion) the best value for quality in their regions.

The Oyster with shallot, mustard, lemon, and olive oil mignonette

2021 Eleni & Edouard Vocoret Chablis “Les Pargues”

Price: $50 [WineSearcher]

2021 Eleni & Edouard Vocoret Chablis “Les Pargues”

After tasting this wine, it is unsurprising that the Vocorets are touted as the “next big thing” in Chablis. This village bottling has exceptional purity, precision, and freshness while simultaneously displaying roundness and bold fruit. The wine expresses notes of lemon oil, lemon peel, freshly baked bread, honeysuckle, white blossom, caramel apple, and crushed oyster shell. I sometimes find an earthy character on Chablis (especially Petit Chablis and some inferior village Chablis), like uncooked grains (quinoa, in particular). This wine does not exhibit any earthiness and instead is full of rich fruits, leesy notes, and minerality.

The classic appearance of high, precise acid and some flinty reduction comes through on the palate. The palate’s texture is dual, with soft, round edges and a distinct lift from the acid and minerality. That is precisely the characteristic desired from Chablis.

With Oysters

I think of the horizontality of this wine; those round edges and creamy bready qualities are reduced with the oyster introduction, but the fresh acidity and the crushed oyster shell flavors are lifted. The Chablis becomes more austere, less fruity, and loses some of its character.

It’s not a bad pairing, but the wine stands better on its own.

2022 Benanti Etna Bianco

Price: $33 [WineSearcher]

2022 Benanti Etna Bianco

I couldn’t do this tasting without Etna’s most iconic producer. The wines of Benanti have introduced me (among many other wine professionals) to the infinite potential of Sicilian and Mount Etna wines.

Despite Sicily and Etna’s southerly location, the Benanti immediately appears more linear than the Vocoret Chablis. There are aromas and flavors of sea spray, wet rock, salt, zesty lemon, lime, dried herb, golden and green apple, pineapple rind (like Mexican tepache, so fermented rind), and some earthy notes, which I associated with cellar funk.

This wine is precise on the palate, driven by fresh high acidity. A distinct minty and herbal character lingers on the palate, extending the finish. In comparison, this wine is nowhere near as complex or expressive as the Chablis and is also much less clean (as far as the winemaking is concerned), but it is still perfectly balanced and enjoyable.

With Oysters

There is a nice interplay between the briny notes of the oyster and the salty, funky notes found in the wine. The restrained fruit profile does not conflict with the clean flavor of the oyster. Benanti provides an ideal palate cleanser, which may be the precise purpose of the pairing.

2021 Moreau Naudet Chablis Premier Cru Montmains

Price: $77 [WineSearcher]

2021 Moreau Naudet Chablis Montmains

The Premier Cru bottling exhibits a pronounced, rich, and ample fruit quality on the nose (and palate). Unlike the Vocoret, there is not as much bready or toasty character, but there is still ample crushed rock minerality. Aromas and flavors of ripe lemon, honey, caramelized sugar, fresh forest (not earthy, but like walking through a forest after a rain), mango lozenge, and crushed rock permeate.

On the palate, the wine feels slightly more restrained when it comes to acid, which is closer to medium plus than high. The Montmains has ample weight without the Chablis taking on the rounder qualities of its southern Burgundian Chardonnay counterparts. On the palate, the crème character from the Malolactic (which is almost always done in Chablis) shows itself more.

With Oysters

I am beginning to suspect that with oysters, “less is more.” The funkiness of the mollusk almost intrudes on the pristine structure of the near-perfect Chablis Premier Cru. The fruity core and the acidity are reduced; the wine feels a little thrown off by the rip-roaring acid of the mignonette (maybe I have gone a little crazy on the lemon). Again, the Moreau Naudet shows much better on its own, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing (though it messes with the premise of the article)

2021 Girolamo Russo  “San Lorenzo”

Price: $78 [WineSearcher]

2021 Girolamo Russo San Lorenzo Etna Bianco

The single-site bottling of Girolamo Russo San Lorenzo was probably the most exciting and intriguing wine for me to try. It opens up with aromas of sea salt, smoke, tart green apple, honeysuckle, nuts, citrus zest, lemon peel, orchard fruits, and gunflint. It is wonderfully seductive in its minerally sea air aromatics.

The palate has many nutty notes, and the wine has somewhat of a sherried tinge (even though it felt rather reductive on the nose) without the aldehyde components. The San Lorenzo is high-acid, with some phenolic grip and ample freshness. An immensely complex wine that immediately (at least for me) directs me towards the islands.

With Oysters

There is a brilliant interplay of flavors between the oysters and the nutty, zesty, and minerally Carricante. This is the most complex pairing, where the wine leads the way, and the oysters/mignonette amplifies the nutty components.

Winners (personal opinion, obviously)

Regional Winners (Wine Only): Chablis

2021 looks like a classic and competent vintage for Chablis, and the wines tasted prove this statement. There is no issue of balance, and there is plenty of vinous character, but not at the expense of minerality. Both Vocoret and Moreau-Naudet are brilliant wines, and I will be drinking and pairing them, but I will likely not pair them with oysters.

Regional Winners (With Oysters): Etna Bianco

At the risk of repeating what I wrote earlier (but with a need to reiterate), I believe with oyster pairings, less is more. That is why wines like Muscadet, which rarely show ripe round fruits, go so well with oysters. And with the Etna Bianco, the breadth of “non-fruit” flavors seems better with oysters’ brine quality.

Best Wine (Overall): 2021 Girolamo Russo San Lorenzo

In my opinion, the San Lorenzo blew away the competition. I think the second place, 2021 Voceret Pargues, came very close. But something about the sherry-like, smoky, and salty complexity paired with mineral undertones and orchard fruits pushed me toward San Lorenzo. I’ve yet to have a poor wine from Girolamo Russo, and I can’t recommend this producer enough.

Conclusion

Some detractors of raw oysters may say they only serve as delivery vessels for the sauce/ mignonette they are topped with. Those people don’t understand the subtlety in the salty flavors that oysters bring to the equation. Or they may not like those flavors, but that is quite ok. Regardless of detractors, I felt that the result of my “experiment” provided fascinating (at least for me) evidence, and I learned quite a bit. But most importantly, I was very impressed by the quality of all of the wines selected and by the sheer complexity and depth of Etna Bianco ( which is still flying a little bit under the radar)

So, what to pair with oysters? Give Etna Bianco a shot!

What wines are best for the Summer? All four were phenomenal.

 

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