The question: What’s a good wine for sushi?
The answer: I love a good East-meets-West challenge, and I love sushi, so I’ve given this some thought over the years.
Many people equate the term sushi with raw fish, but the more correct word in that case is sashimi. Sushi is a Japanese dish involving vinegared rice, most commonly a roll stuffed with raw fish, though the rolls, typically sliced into disks, can contain other ingredients, notably raw vegetables. A “sushi” meal usually consists of a variety of such rolls as well as a few artfully sliced standalone pieces of raw fish. We’re talking freshness and delicacy, and that pretty much dictates a white wine. (I’m assuming from your question that you’re not, as am I, partial to the classic pairing, sake.)
Often the rice is infused with sugar and served in the company of two condiments, soy sauce and wasabi, which has a pungent flavour comparable to Dijon mustard or horseradish. So there’s usually a sour-sweet-salty-spicy symphony going on. I know one veteran sushi chef who swears by New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a zesty-fruity white that, though technically dry, contains underlying sugar that resonates nicely with the rice.
My own preference, however, veers more toward leaner, less brassy styles, because I want the sushi to take the lead rather than share its glory with the grape (that’s why I strongly favour neutral, vaguely sweet sake). My top wine choice is dry sherry, specifically the styles labelled fino and manzanilla, which are clear in colour, tangy as the dickens and always served cold. But most people find the racy, saline quality of dry sherry jarring. That’s why I’d suggest gruner veltliner from Austria. It’s fruitier than sherry, and drier and more neutral than New Zealand sauvignon blanc, but still delivers a yin-yang of sourness and subtle sweetness. Some people like sushi with muscadet from France, a very neutral white that also happens to be a classic pairing for raw oysters. I think it goes nicely with sashimi unadorned with wasabi, not so much with a condiment, and rice-laden sushi platter.
It’s become fashionable for Alsatian winemakers in particular to say that their white wines – riesling, muscat and gewurztraminer in particular – are well-suited to sushi. I wouldn’t argue. Alsatian whites, usually dry, have a fruity-aromatic quality that stands up (reasonably) well to a dollop of wasabi. They also often tingle with a mineral-like character that resonates with the saline-maritime qualities of the fish.
If you are a diehard red wine drinker, here’s my recommendation: Skip the sushi and grill up a steak.
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