I’ve always found it interesting—and a little irritating—that, for the most part, sushi bars are wine-free zones. Walk into your favorite sushi restaurant, and I’d bet for every glass of wine in front of a customer, you’ll find 10 glasses of beer or cups of sake or soda. And yet, to me at least, fresh fish would seem to be a perfect candidate for interesting and adventurous wine pairings.
Maybe sushi lovers fear that wine will overpower the delicate nuances of good sushi and sashimi—and rightly so. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to anyone looking to pair wine with sushi—or raw fish dishes from elsewhere such as Italian crudo and Peruvian ceviche—it would be to choose a wine that’s very light and subtle. It doesn’t take much to overwhelm a piece of hamachi or hotategai, so I’d recommend against allowing a tannic red wine or even an oaky Chardonnay anywhere near your sushi. To be fair, there is a cult of sushi devotees—mostly followers of Daisuke Utagawa of Sushi-Ko in Washington, D.C.—who favor Burgundian-style Pinot Noir with sushi, but I’m not sold on the idea.
Not sure which Chardonnays are oaky and which aren’t? Here’s a helpful tip: Just set your sights on a bottle of Wishing Tree Chardonnay ($9.40) from Australia. It says “unoaked” right on the bottle. This is a lively, bright-tasting wine with hints of citrus, stonefruits and peaches. The tangy citrus qualities of Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay play nicely with any dish that incorporates ponzu sauce, plum, lime, orange or Japanese shiso. Ditto for any cilantro you might find in ceviche or basil in crudo.
By the way, since sushi is usually expensive to begin with—and since most sushi restaurants sport pitiful wine lists—I normally opt to BMOB (bring my own bottle). When I do, I don’t go looking for the most expensive French white Burgundy in the cellar, either. I typically try to keep the overall cost of dinner down by selecting something economical like Alice White Lexia ($6.60), for example. This southeastern Australia wine has a brightness and sweetness that I like with spicier sushi choices such as the Death roll at Sushi Maru or any sushi that incorporates spicy mayo. Another good choice, also from Down Under, is the refreshing Aussie Black Swan Chardonnay-Semillon ($5.20) with its sweet melon notes and subtle acidity.
Other avenues to explore with sushi are the in-your-face fruitbomb wines like Argentine Torrontes, Viognier and Gewürztraminer. A bottle of Santa Julia Torrontes ($6.60) I tasted recently played on my palate much like Gewürztraminer: It has an exotic, floral nose and flavors of litchi and lime and even a hint of mint. It would pair especially well, I think, with Asian-fusion dishes that feature anise flavors. With its explosive melon and peach flavors, the unoaked Chardonnay-Viognier ($7.50) from France’s Tortoise Creek is another sushi-worthy foe. I’d give it a whirl with soft-shell crab and shrimp tempura.
When push comes to shove, though, I don’t want my wine fighting with my fish. So, more often than not, I’ll opt for a relatively neutral, acidic wine to go with sushi—something like an Alsatian Pinot Blanc or white Bordeaux from France, or even a good quality sparkling wine. My current favorite wine to bring to eat with sushi is Domaine Cheval-Blanc Signé ($9.40), from France. It’s a traditional example of white Bordeaux (60 percent Semillon, 30 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 10 percent Muscadelle) that seems to have been born to enjoy with seafood: abundant zippy hints of melon, grapefruit and pineapple. Try it the next time you’re working with chopsticks. cw