The ever-growing popularity of sushi can be a challenge for wine lovers. Each sushi offering has its own unique characteristics, which pairs differently with alcoholic beverages.
Matching wine with sushi is becoming more common with the proliferation of sushi bars and restaurants. It seems to me that in a number of neighborhoods in New York City, there are as many sushi establishments as there are pizzerias or Asian-themed take-outs.
Add to this the growing number of traditional (non-sushi) restaurants that now offer sushi as a separate section of their menu and the number of food halls springing up all over the New York metropolitan area and it’s clear that sushi as a cuisine is now mainstream.
The traditional beverage match-ups still hold up well, but, true to the goal of this column, let’s explore alternatives that you might not otherwise consider.
First, the traditional match-ups, beer and Rieslings. I must admit that a glass of Sapporo or other Japanese imported beers seem to be the perfect foil to nearly all types of sushi. The frothy, slightly bitter taste of these beers offsets the oiliness of fish, the tanginess of pickled ginger, the saltiness of soy and the heat of wasabi.
Riesling, on the other hand, has a balance of sweetness and acidity that matches well with the fatty flavor of fish and the saltiness of soy. Keeping these complementary combinations in mind, let’s consider alternatives.
First, and foremost in my mind, is sparkling wine. It is perfect for cutting the oiliness of certain raw fish and complementing the salt and fire of a number of dishes. The bubbles seem to wash away the aftertastes, clear the palate and set it up for the next bite. The steely, yeasty notes contrast with the textures and flavors of sushi. In today’s market there is a proliferation of fine sparklers under $25.
Specific types of sushi have distinct tastes and characteristics that pair better with specific wines. For example, let’s examine the two major categories of tuna.
First, maguro, the bluefin variety, which in appearance (red) and texture is very similar to raw beef. As with beef, a pinot noir’s versatile combination of soft texture, low tannin, zest and complex flavors is a nice match. The medium-bodied fruit components complement but don’t compete with the oiliness of the fish while the subtle structure and flavor profile tame the wasabi and pickled ginger. Oregon pinot noirs offer a nice cross between French Burgundies and those from the northern California coast.
The second category of tuna is ahi, the yellowfin variety, which is white and milder in flavor than the maguro. It calls for a lighter style of wine. A perfect match is a well-balanced chardonnay. The natural fruit and minerality of the chardonnay complement the oil in the tuna and the crispness offsets the zest of the wasabi. Try a Chablis version from Burgundy.
What works with the most popular types of handrolls such as salmon, eel, octopus, crab and/or avocado, cucumber or seaweed? Try a Beaujolais or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The earthy, fruity characteristics of Beaujolais pair well with the mildness of handrolls. In particular, a Moulin-a-Vent from Burgundy is light and crisp and brings out the subtleties in most hand or maki rolls.
Conversely, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc with a hint of melon or lemon grass will also pair well; the minerality offsets the oiliness of the milder fish and the slight fruitiness or grassiness brings out the subtle flavors in the rolls.
If you are a sushi purist, you likely enjoy one type of sushi at a sitting. You can easily pair a specific wine with your meal. If you are like me, the most enjoyable aspect of ordering sushi is mixing and matching. This makes wine pairing a bit more challenging, but, in my opinion, sparkling wine bridges these profiles best.
In the end, it’s all about experimenting and departing from the norm. I’m sure you’re up for the challenge.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.