It is during the holidays that oysters are at their best. The little bivalves have stored up food all summer, growing plump and succulent. On the East Coast, they'll now go dormant until April, becoming ever leaner until they feed again in spring. This is the time to visit Tempest, Sardine or Graze and sample some of the ocean's greatest gifts.
Perhaps the most classic oyster wine is Muscadet. The inexpensive Loire Valley white has good acidity and complementary minerality that works well with oysters' saltiness. Look for bottles that say "sur lie," or "on lees," meaning the wines were left on sediment (yeast) and thus have a little more aroma and body.
In Madison, you'll be hard pressed to discover this lovely pairing, however, as many shellfish-serving restaurants don't have a Muscadet on the menu (and almost none by the glass).
A way around the problem is to bring your own bottle; I've been enjoying the Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet 2011 ($14). Winemaker Marc Ollivier makes lively natural wines and hand-harvests his grapes. This easy drinker is fresh and lemony with a touch of honey.
Undoubtedly the most famous tome on the subject of shellfish is M.F.K. Fisher's Consider the Oyster. In it, she tells us to drink Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé or champagne. While this is sage advice, wines from Sauvignon Blanc grapes are even easier companions with West Coast oysters - particularly in the lower price points.
The West Coast Kumamoto oyster is prized for its petit mouthfeel and melon flavors. With a crisp pour of a New Zealand classic like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($25), this favorite becomes transporting.
For East Coast oysters, which are brinier and more difficult to pair, a dry and flinty Grüner Veltliner works (the Berger Grüner Veltliner 2011, available by the glass at Tempest, is ideal), as do Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs like Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and even Cheverny. These provide the tight minerality necessary to cope with higher salinity.
Domaine Lucien Crochet makes a beautiful Sancerre 2010 ($26) with hints of citrus rind and mint that has the right texture for oysters. Make sure the wine is cold, and close the pairing gap with a squirt of lemon or mignonette (a sauce of vinegar and shallot).
The slightly peppery Francis Blanchet Pouilly-Fumé Cuvee Silice 2011 ($20) pairs with oysters from either coast, and its notes of citrus rind and firecracker smoke are at once refreshing and seductive. Again, add a squeeze of lemon.
Every year as the temperature drops and precipitation begins, I shuck oysters, grab a large serving platter, and present half-shells on freshly fallen snow. I follow M.F.K. Fisher's advice and accompany them with a good Chablis. The nuanced Chablis Terroir de Chichée ($30) from Quebecois winemaker Patrick Piuze is a delicious choice. For a more serene bottle, the Domaine Jean-Paul & Benot Droin Chablis 2009 ($23) is as clean and achingly lissome as Alicia de Larrocha playing Mozart. The vines of Chablis are planted in soil that was once an ancient seabed, composed primarily of fossilized oyster shells. It is little wonder, then, that the resulting lean and chalky wines make for pure holiday pairing poetry.