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.
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
Tokyo sells more wine than sake.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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,