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How to pair wine with sushi

The secret to pairing wine with Japan's most famous cuisine is to 'go with the flow', according to Hiroshi Ishida, vice chair of the 2019 Decanter Asia Wine Awards.

Wine with sushi – Pairings to consider:

  • Kai / Shiromi: Dry, mineral white wines
  • Sunomono / Dashi: Koshu
  • Akami: Pinot Noir
  • Edomae: Bordeaux, Rioja and Brunello
  • Soy sauce dishes: NZ Pinot and Burgundy

As one of the most popular Japanese cuisine internationally, Sushi – to some extent – shapes the world’s impression of Japanese food.

This artisan, delicate dish is usually made with a small ball of rice vinegar-infused steamed rice, combined with a variety of Neta (ingredients).

The ‘Nagare (flow)’

‘Sushi is designed to be enjoyed in one bite,’ says Hiroshi Ishida, Best Sommelier of Asia-Oceania in Hong Kong in 2015 and vice chair of the 2019 Decanter Asia Wine Awards.

‘It doesn’t seem sensible to order a different glass every time you have a different flavour of sushi. Therefore, every wine should at least work with two to three sushi dishes.’

If you are going to authentic Japanese restaurant, where sushi dishes are freshly made one by one in front of you, the first and most important thing to do is let the chef know that you would like to pair your sushi with wine.

‘The “nagare (flow)” of the sushi being served is essential to the pairing experience,’ says Ishida.

‘For instance, you will struggle to find a wine that can pair well with Ika (squid), Hirame (Japanese halibut) and Maguro (Tuna) all at the same time,’ he adds.

Therefore, a good sommelier would ask the chef to group the dishes by each category of ingredients. These categories include Kai (shellfish), Shiromi (white fish) and Akami (lean cut), according to Ishida.

‘If you are ordering an assorted sushi platter, be aware that there may not be one wine that matches every piece perfectly. So consider wine pairing before you place your order, if you don’t have the help of a sommelier.’

A touch of freshness

Kai (shellfish) and Shiromi (white fish) are fresh in flavours – they are served as they come, without extra processing or seasoning.

‘You don’t even need soy sauce to enjoy them – just eat with a pinch of salt, and maybe a touch of wasabi,’ suggests Ishida.

‘These dishes are best paired with dry, acidic and mineral white wines such as Chablis, Albariño or an Assyrtiko from Santorini.’

Pinot and rice

Akami (lean cuts) are richer in flavour and texture, so the natural choice would be a lighter red wine, especially Pinot Noir, said Ishida.

‘I think Pinot Noir generally pairs nicely with steamed rice. The sweetness in rice usually works nicely with the acidity in Pinot Noir. ’

Even better if the sushi rice is seasoned with Akazu, a red vinegar made using sake lees, which tends to work well with red wines.

The ‘Edomae’ style

‘Edomae’ in Japanese meaning ‘slightly processed’. So in sushi terms, ‘edomae style’ usually refers to dishes that are slightly scorched or seasoned with sauce.

These dishes tend to have stronger, sometimes smoky flavours, explains Ishida.

‘With the help of Akazu (red vinegar), they pair nicely with classic red wines such as Bordeaux, Rioja and Brunello. Anago (salt-water eels), Unagi (fresh-water eels) and Scorched Maguro (tuna) fall into that category,’ he adds.

The taboos

‘Rice is like a cushion when it comes to pairing – it absorbs flavours, so in fact nothing will go horribly wrong,’ says Ishida.

However, sushi dishes are generally delicate and gentle in flavours, so powerful, New World-style wines with high alcohol and heavy fruit extraction tend to overpower them.

‘For instance, an importer would struggle to convince his/her customer to pair Napa Valley Cabernet with Japanese food,’ he says, but quickly adds that there are some more delicate and restrained New World wines which could work nicely with sushi.

Japanese wines

‘It’s worth pointing out that Japanese wines are not necessarily perfect matches to all kind of Japanese food,’ says Ishida.

Koshu wines from Yamanashi County, for instance, are a good match to Kai (shellfish), as the latter has a hint of bitterness and a depth of umami flavours. It also works with bitter-flavoured vegetable sushi, he explains.

An even better match is Koshu wines with Dashi – a seaweed-based broth, which is one of the fundamental cooking ingredients in Japanese cuisine, especially miso soup.

‘Starters such as Sunomono (Japanese Vinegar seasoned salad) are also nice to have with a sip of Koshu,’ he says.

The devil is in the condiments

‘Finally, I would like to stress that if you’d like to fully enjoy sushi with wine, make sure you use quality soy sauce and wasabi. Low quality condiments almost certainly bring down the entire pairing experience,’ says Ishida.

‘Dried up wasabi paste left in the corner of the restaurant won’t do your sushi any justice. If you are spending money on top quality Maguro (tuna), abandon those cheap soy sauces and wasabi pastes that only have a spicy kick.’

As a matter of fact, in order to let the consumer savour original flavours of Ika (squid), many Japanese chefs would simply serve it with salt.

‘If you’d love to enjoy sushi with soy sauce, it’s worth noting that very acidic whites may not be the best choice, but red wines with reserved fruitiness such as Burgundy or Old World-style New Zealand Pinot Noir tends to make soy sauce sing.’

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