Food n' Wine

The Art of Pairing Sushi: A Fusion of Two Cultures

Many of us, even the most wine-obsessed, seem to forget wine’s place at the table the moment we enter a sushi bar. Most diners are content to wash down their sushi and sashimi with beer or (forgive them) hot sake, while urbane types hope the house offers a few good cold sakes. And for those who do desire wine, the indifferent selection at the typical sushi joint is discouraging. What a shame, when we could all be forging our own heavenly matches of wine and fish.


Fortunately, savvy restaurateurs are awakening to the vast possibilities wine offers to enhance, complement, and set off their raw fish dishes (which for the sake of convenience we will refer to generically, if incorrectly, as sushi). The differential between wine and beer in bulking up the tab no doubt provides further incentive. The trend is most evident at innovative “new-style” Japanese restaurants working more or less under the influence of Nobu Matsuhisa, but it is also seen in the many New American and French restaurants, where wine is the beverage of choice, that offer raw fish preparations as first courses. And finally someone introduced an Italian answer to sashimi, called crudo, which is meant to be paired with wine, at Esca, in New York. It is a revelation.


One of the most exciting aspects to pairing wine with sushi and other forms of raw fish is that there are no rules. Most classic wine and food matches evolved over time in Europe as local wines were shaped to complement local ingredients. For the same reason, one would expect sake to be the natural accompaniment to sushi, but there is some controversy on the point. The rice flavors in sushi clash with the subtle rice flavors in premium sakes; Japanese recommends sticking to sashimi with sake. While such distinctions may be too esoteric for the untrained palate, some cognoscenti argue that certain wines do, in fact, match up more profoundly than sake with both sushi and sashimi. Perhaps in confirmation of this, Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant Nobu Tokyo sells more wine than sake.


If the notion of marrying wines with sushi is new, it is happening at a time of great ferment and innovation in the wine world, when the old guidelines on what to drink when are losing their force. It is widely accepted, for example, that some red wines (Pinot Noir especially) are indeed suited to fish. With raw fish, the field is wide open, and different authorities often give conflicting advice. Most recommend staying away from heavy, oaky California Chardonnays and big, tannic reds, but the Nobu restaurants pour specially made house Chardonnay and Cabernet. Some restaurateurs are fond of bold, spicy Gewürztraminer and Viognier, while others adhere to crisp, palate-cleansing Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and sparkling wines. Interestingly, Pinot Noir has a broad following.