Sushi & Wine

by Alexis Beltrami

Many of us, even the most wine-obsessed, seem to forget wine's place at the table the moment we enter a sushi bar. Most diners are content to wash down their sushi and sashimi with beer or (forgive them) hot sake, while urbane types hope the house offers a few good cold sakes. And for those who do desire wine, the indifferent selection at the typical sushi joint is discouraging. What a shame, when we could all be forging our own heavenly matches of wine and fish.

Fortunately, savvy restaurateurs are awakening to the vast possibilities wine offers to enhance, complement, and set off their raw fish dishes (which for the sake of convenience we will refer to generically, if incorrectly, as sushi). The differential between wine and beer in bulking up the tab no doubt provides further incentive. The trend is most evident at innovative "new-style" Japanese restaurants working more or less under the influence of Nobu Matsuhisa, but it is also seen in the many New American and French restaurants, where wine is the beverage of choice, that offer raw fish preparations as first courses. And last summer, the Mario Batali-Joe Bastianich team introduced an Italian answer to sashimi, called crudo, which is meant to be paired with wine, at their new restaurant, Esca, in New York. It is a revelation.

One of the most exciting aspects to pairing wine with sushi and other forms of raw fish is that there are no rules. Most classic wine and food matches evolved over time in Europe as local wines were shaped to complement local ingredients. For the same reason, one would expect sake to be the natural accompaniment to sushi, but there is some controversy on the point. Kazuhide Yamazaki, an authority at the Japan Prestige Sake Association in New York, has observed that the rice flavors in sushi clash with the subtle rice flavors in premium sakes; he recommends sticking to sashimi with sake. While such distinctions may be too esoteric for the untrained palate, some cognoscenti argue that certain wines do, in fact, match up more profoundly than sake with both sushi and sashimi. Perhaps in confirmation of this, Nobu Matsuhisa tells us that his restaurant Nobu Tokyo sells more wine than sake.

If the notion of marrying wines with sushi is new, it is happening at a time of great ferment and innovation in the wine world, when the old guidelines on what to drink when are losing their force. It is widely accepted, for example, that some red wines (Pinot Noir especially) are indeed suited to fish. With raw fish, the field is wide open, and different authorities often give conflicting advice. Most recommend staying away from heavy, oaky California Chardonnays and big, tannic reds, but the Nobu restaurants pour specially made house Chardonnay and Cabernet (see our interview with Nobu). Some restaurateurs are fond of bold, spicy Gewürztraminer and Viognier, while others adhere to crisp, palate-cleansing Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and sparkling wines. Interestingly, Pinot Noir has a broad following.

Catch the Umami

Indeed, at Washington, D.C.'s most prominent sushi place, Sushi-Ko, Burgundian Pinot Noir has attained something near cult status. Sushi-Ko's proprietor and creative director, Daisuke Utagawa, expounds a culinary philosophy he calls "the cuisine of subtraction," which seeks to reveal the essence of each ingredient in a refined yet honest expression. For Utagawa, the vinous equivalent of such a philosophy is found in the terroir-based*, single-varietal wines of Burgundy, particularly as expressed by low-interventionist winemakers. Of the 120 wines on his all-Burgundy list, only some 25 are white. The moderate tannins in red Burgundy, Utagawa says, "combine well with the 'sixth flavor' or 'umami' found in a range of raw seafood." The umami of the raw fish, he explains, cancels out the tannins of the wine, allowing the fruit flavors and subtle floral and mineral elements in the wine to flourish, while the tannins of the wine give shape to the elusive sweet-salty umami. Utagawa's ideas, while exotic, are winning converts here and abroad.

Other restaurants are less programmatic in their approach. At Nobu in New York, wine director David Gordon recommends crisp, high-acid whites such as Riesling or Champagne, or spicy and aromatic whites such as Viognier and Gewürztraminer. At Bond Street, also in downtown Manhattan, manager Chris Johnson and chef Adam Shepard conducted a tasting with StarChefs in which we explored some of the many possibilities for wine and sushi pairings. With a superb dish of raw fluke and spicy cod roe over a savory sorbet of fried celery, cilantro and celery seeds, we found that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc worked well enough, cleansing the palate, but that a Charles Schleret Gewürztraminer Herrenweg was a true marriage, picking up the spiciness in the dish. With fatty toro or salmon sashimi the Pinot Blanc's acidity cut through the fat beautifully, but with striped jack sushi the Pinot was a bit overwhelmed by the dab of wasabi, while the Gewürztraminer stood up to the spicy fresh wasabi (actually, we found that this particular Gewürz, a powerful yet balanced dry example, worked well with virtually everything we tasted). A spicy tuna roll with a chili mayonnaise sauce was terrific with a fruity Beaujolais from Julienas, with the wine's fruit complementing the spicy heat, and a sesame-crusted shrimp roll with orange curry sauce made a brilliant match with an Oregon Pinot Noir, bringing out the smokiness and rich earthiness of the wine. With arctic char, a rich, orange-fleshed fish, the fruitiness of the Julienas drew attention away from the fish, but the Pinot Noir provided a more subtle complement.


The authority Oz Clarke, in his Wine Guide, writes that "wasabi is a wine killer," but our tastings suggest a more flexible view. As our Bond Street hosts pointed out, wasabi, like any other spice, simply needs to be overcome by the wine, a challenge our Alsatian Gewürztraminer was more than up to. With sashimi, crudo, and tartar, wasabi isn't an issue. Likewise, soy sauce, used properly as a salt, shouldn't be a problem with wine. That means a judicious dab, not a dunking contest.

If there is one theme that emerges from our tastings and experimentation with sushi and wine pairings, it is the elemental union of sea and earth. Raw fish, which seems to speak of the essence of the sea, is paradoxically set off most intensely by wines that speak most directly of the land-- that is, earthy/ minerally, unoaked or lightly oaked, single-varietal wines. Where are such wines found? Alsace above all, but also in the Friuli of northeast Italy, Chablis, the Loire, Beaujolais, Austria, New Zealand, and Pinot Noir from Burgundy and Oregon. But don't take our word for it. Our message is: experiment and have fun!

*terroir: The English language has no equivalent for this wonderful French word used to signify all the physical features that make a particular patch of earth distinctive: soil composition, microclimate, altitude, exposure, et cetera.