The New Raw Bar

The New Raw Bar

A decade ago, pairing wines with a seafood plateau was easy. Raw oysters and clams plus lobster, shrimp and the odd mussel or scallop would all happily co-mingle with a cool glass of Chablis, Muscadet or Champagne. Condiments, if you even noticed them, included the standard-issue half-lemon wrapped in cheesecloth, a ramekin of vinegary mignonette and perhaps a dollop of mayonnaise.

But over the past few years, the raw bar has gone global, with sushi, sashimi and ceviches joining the usual suspects, and wasabi, pickled ginger, citrus juices, jalapeños, cilantro and scallions crowding the condiments assortment. Now, the question of what to drink while bellying up to the raw bar has become more complicated. Unless you want to savor your plateau in courses and turn it into dinner, one beverage needs to fit the bill. But will the crisp Chablis that works so well with oysters and clams survive the red pepper onslaught of ceviche, not to mention the wasabi?

Chris Goodhart, the wine director of New York’s Balthazar and Pastis restaurants, says that these new seafood preparations necessarily call for more inventive wine pairings. Here are some of his suggestions.

Champagne: According to Goodhart, though ceviche and sushi may be the new raw bar, it’s hard to replace Champagne as its mainstay pairing. “It goes with everything,” Goodhart says. In addition to the classic pairing with oysters, a dry bubbly brings out clean jalapeño heat in ceviche, and can also mitigate the richness of lobster. A well-balanced Champagne, such as Diebolt-Vallois NV Tradition Brut Champagne, any bottling from Taittinger, or a sparkling wine such as Astoria Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Cuvée Tenuta Val di Brun, has enough acidity and lightness to cleanse the palate between bites, allowing you to skip from periwinkle to clam to sushi without getting dragged down by their differing flavors. And while Goodhart usually resists adding lemon or mignonette because the acid interferes with most wines, he finds that a sparkler with good acidity can maintain its qualities with a judicious amount of either one, even if the mignonette contains pickled ginger or wasabi.

The Classic Whites: While Chablis and Muscadet are the ne plus ultra of a traditional seafood plateau pairing, Muscadet sur lie, that is aged on the lees and unfiltered, carries enough depth to take on the wider raw bar variety seen today. Goodhart prefers to drink them young and fresh—no more than a year or two old—and he favors the Domaine de l’Aubepine 2002 Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine sur lie. Muscadet sur lie often has nuances of citrus, which can deemphasize salinity, especially in oysters and clams. A dry, light Pinot Gris from Alsace or a Bordeaux Blanc would also work.

Sauvignon Blanc, especially one from the Loire, can mimic the fresh sea qualities of oysters, while its crispness and minerality tone down the meaty qualities of richer seafood, making it a nice foil to mussels, shrimp and lobster. Sancerre is the expected pairing here, but Goodhart also favors the wines from Quincy, like the Philippe Portier 2002 Quincy, which has floral, herbaceous characteristics that partner beautifully with pretty much everything you’d find on the ice.

Whites Beyond Cliché (and a Rosé): Today’s seafood plateau begs for wines beyond the oyster-bar pale. Rich and intensely perfumed Viogniers, for example, will usually overpower a platter of delicate oysters. But taken in context with offerings such as ceviche, lobster and sushi, a Viognier that is not too ripe and aromatic can be delightful. Goodhart loves the Alamos 2002 Viognier from Mendoza, Argentina, which is “true to the variety, with a lively acidity.”

Similarly, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, as long as they are very dry, have good acidity and are not too expressive on the nose, have spiciness that is gorgeous with seafood. Try a light-bodied, floral Austrian Grüner like the Domaine Wachau 2002 Grüner Veltliner Federspiel or a dry Alsatian Cuvée, Trimbach’s 2000 Cuvée Frédéric Émile Riesling.

A dry rosé with good acidity can underscore the meatiness of the various crustaceans. Goodhart loves the elegance of Jean-Maurice Raffault’s 2002 Chinon Rosé with shellfish; the lean wine’s berry characteristics complement the lobster, crab claw and shrimp in particular. Plus, to Goodhart’s eye, there is “a Japanese aesthetic, in terms of how beautiful the colors of shrimp, lobster and rosé look together.”

Sherry: Fino Sherry, nutty and round, yet tangy, can create some spot-on matches with the new raw bar. Manzanilla Sherry, produced in the seaside town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, has a terrific crispness and a saline nuance from the ocean air that makes it a natural with even intense seafood like periwinkles or sea urchin. Higher alcohol levels and good acidity also make dry Sherry a good match for a mignonette. Goodhart loves the E. Lustau Puerto Fino Sherry, which has the earthy wherewithal to stand up to the ceviche as much as its flavor caresses the clams.

Saké: A completely different tactic, inspired by sushi, is a chilled glass of good-quality saké. Clear, mellow and crisp, light-bodied sakés are perfect matches for the clean flavors of raw fish and seafood. And because saké can be completely devoid of acidity, it is a nice partner for ceviche, or anything you’re eating with lemon juice or mignonette. Any of the sakés made by Geikkeikan or Hakusan would be a great place to start.

And One Kindred Spirit—Gin: In Russia it’s common to knock back oysters with tiny glasses of iced vodka, but Goodhart finds that gin, with its fragrant botanicals, is actually a more interesting partner. It works well with everything on the plateau at Balthazar, from the crabs to the ceviche, and it is exceptional with the shrimp, where it envelops the meat in a sweet, aromatic juniper aroma, bringing out its saline character. It is also a winner with the clams and oysters, especially when they are topped with a little cocktail sauce. Goodhart would choose a gin with a gentle yet complex flavor, such as Tanqueray Ten or Plymouth.

With this variety of suggestions, from the classic to the quirky, you are sure to drink well, no matter what surprises your next raw bar has in store.

Published on February 1, 2004

The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories