While it might be natural to drink sake in a sushi restaurant as one would drink a Nero D'Avola in an Italian one, for some, sushi and sake aren't exactly a match made in heaven. Considered an emerging novelty and acquired taste to many American palates, sake has long been the go-to for sushi and has a tradition of accompanying one another in Japan.
But if the sui generis expression of sake's flavor is not for you, wine can work just as well with your shrimp tempura roll or salmon nigiri.
We asked leading beverage directors from some of New York City's top sushi restaurants on exactly how to pair wine with every kind of fish, shellfish, vegetable and roll.
Raw SeafoodGenerally, fatty pieces of fish need higher acidity and tannins, while leaner fish need softer, round wines. When pairing simply prepared fish such as sashimi, the conversation is about adding acid to cut through fat.
"I love pairing Chablis or dry-expressions of Riesling, such as 2016 Domaine Moreau-Naudet Chablis 1er Cru Forêts or 1990 J.B. Becker Riesling Spätlese Trocken Wallufer Berg Bildstock. The salty minerality of the Chablis and the piercing acidity of the Riesling help cut through the richness of the fish," says Chelsea Carrier, beverage director of New York City's o ya.
Tuna can lend itself to a variety of wines since it ranges from delicate (yellowfin) to robust (fatty tuna), including white Burgundy, a structured rosé or even a Pinot Noir with a higher acidity if enjoying bluefin otoro.
Lighter fare like hamachi (Pacific yellowtail or amberjack), amaebi (sweet shrimp) and hotate (scallop) also loves a crisp Chablis says Frank Cisneros, beverage director of Michelin-starred restaurant Ichimura at Uchū. He specifically leans towards a richer style of Chablis like Domaine LaRoche.
Salmon is an easy match to remember: go pink. Or more specifically, Sushi Ginza Onodera beverage director Yuki Minakawa recommends a rosé from Provence.
Strong fish like mackerel need a wine to tone down its robust flavor, so you don't end up with too much of a fishy aftertaste. Go for a glass from Alsace, such as a dry Muscat, like the 2010 Domaine Zind Humbrecht. "It has an expressive bouquet of white flowers and a touch of white peach on the palate that will make the mackerel taste much more delicate," says Jonathan Charnay, beverage director of Masa.
Minakawa would also suggest a glass of Grüner Veltliner. It has complexity, salinity and a touch of white pepper that complements the flavor of mackerel, and and its acidity balances the fat.
Cooked SeafoodCooked seafood like crab meat, barbecue eel and marinated octopus are all about richness. Here we need a wine to complement the fatty, full flavors.
White wines, particularly Chablis and Riesling, work well with cooked crab meat. Charnay likes a Riesling from the Mosel Valley in Germany. His pick: the 2015 Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein Hatzenporter Stolzenberg Riesling Grosses Gewächs. "It is an ethereal wine, with high acidity and great complexity. Its passion fruit qualities and low alcohol blend perfectly with the full-flavored crab," says Charnay.
Grilled eel (unagi) can have a caramelized and smoky flavor, so this is one of the few times in sushi that we see a red wine with silky tannins make a play in sushi. A great match according to Charnay is the 2012 Algueira Pizarra from Ribeira Sacra—it's light-bodied with smoky undertones and electrifying minerality.
Beaujolais finds a friend with octopus. It's slightly earthy touch complements the marinated seafood. Minakawa leads diners towards a 2016 Domaine des Marrans Morgon Corcelette at Sushi Ginza Onodera.
UniUni can be likened to "ice cream from the sea," says Charnay. The flavors are sweet and salty, intense and concentrated, it's texture creamy and smooth.
Let decadence be matched with decadence—pair uni with Champagne. Charnay likes a low dosage one like the 2005 Agrapart & Fils Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Mineral.
If you opt out of Champagne, other picks from the experts include Puligny-Montrachet from Burgundy or a Grüner Veltliner.
SquidSquid's subtle flavors are hidden behind it's naturally firm, almost rubbery texture. Per Charnay's recommendation, a Pigato from Liguria, Italy (such as the 2017 Laura Aschero Pigato Riviera Ligure di Ponente), which is loaded with citrus fruit and minerality, highlights the delicate flavors of the squid.
Tamago (Sweet Egg Omelette)Tamago has a sweet and light texture. It can be served sashimi-style (without rice or seaweed) or on a base of sushi rice tied together with a nori strip. Minakawa pairs tamago with a Riesling Kabinett to combine the sweet flavors.
VegetableCrisp and clean wines with a touch of acidity are the theme for vegetable rolls like cucumber or avocado. Charnay recommends a low-alcohol Vinho Verde from Portugal (2017 Aphros Loureiro) for cucumber and a light, dry rosé from Provence for avocado rolls. "[Château Revelette Sainte Victoire Rosé] is crisp and will lift the avocado flavors with a touch of pomegranate and lemony acidity."
TempuraDue to the fat content, tempura dishes call for wines with both texture and high acidity or tannins. Depending on the kind of tempura, Charnay recommends a white Burgundy, like a Puligny or Chassagne-Montrachet.
Carrier from o ya chooses an off-dry expression of Chenin Blanc. "The sugar of an off-dry wine will act as an illusion of body, while the refreshing acidity of Chenin Blanc will cut through the tempura. One of my favorite producers to pair with an array of tempura dishes is Domaine Huet (Demi-Sec) from Vouvray," she says.
You can also go for a lean Champagne to cleanse the palate of fried flavors but make sure to shy away from wines with too much alcohol.
Sashimi vs. Nigiri vs. MakiPairings do change slightly if it is sashimi (sans rice or seaweed), nigiri (fish, shellfish or meat atop rice with vinegar) or maki (rice and seafood or vegetable wrapped in seaweed). The richness of some fish is accentuated by rice, and the type of vinegar used in the rice will affect and enhance the pairing. Seaweed (nori) adds saltiness and a crisp texture, and when included, Charnay advises going for more "unctuous" wines like whites with malolactic fermentation.
General RulesWhen it comes to pairing sushi with wines, remember that it is all about simplicity and delicate flavors. Our experts agreed to stay away from wines that are too showy or too full, and rather opt for wines with balance and subtlety. Low alcohol wines with citrus acidity are always a good option. And if you're looking for one wine to take you through your entire meal pairing with good consistency, go for French wines, or more specifically, Champagne, our beverage experts say.
"I think many diners would be surprised how ubiquitously French wines are paired with sushi in Japan. A lot of diners are becoming aware of the versatility of Champagne as a food wine and it's particularly effective with sushi, so I think we're l going to see a rise in popularity there," says Cisneros.