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Super Sushi Wines
By Tina Caputo
Sep 2, 2008
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Before I got into the wine business, I worked in four--count 'em!--Japanese restaurants:  One in Michigan (yes, they have sushi in Michigan), two in London and one in San Francisco.  This may seem odd for a first-generation Italian--and it was.  It started when I was in college and needed to work nights so I could attend classes during the day.  I'd never eaten sushi, but I knew that yuppie types were willing to pay big bucks for it--which would mean bigger tips for the likes of me.

This dream job didn't come without a price: My server uniform was a purple polyester kimono.  Not the comfy kind that ties like a bathrobe, but the authentic 27-piece type that takes like 45 minutes to bind yourself into.  Sit down? Why would I want to do that?  Any why should foot-long sleeves get in the way of open-fame tabletop sukiyaki-cooking?

On the plus side, I got a discount on sushi.  For a long time I avoided the stuff--raw fish was a scary concept to me then--but eventually I was seduced by its jewel-like splendor.  Not only was it gorgeous to look at, but customers were continually exclaiming over how delicious it was.  Once I began tasting it I was quickly hooked. 

What I never did take a liking for, however, was warm sake.  Who ever decided that piping hot swill (they heat it to kill the bitter flavors, but it doesn't do a whole lot of good) was the perfect match for something as wonderful as sushi?

While beer tastes pretty good with sushi, it doesn't really do anything to elevate the experience.  What does, however, is wine.  It may not be the most 'Japanese' drink, but lots of upscale sushi bars are starting to take their wine lists more seriously.  (And I'm not talking about sticky-sweet plum wine here.)

As you might guess, crisp white wines--including sparklers--are usually good options for sushi pairing, since they won't overpower the flavors of the fish, and can serve to cut through some of that wasabi heat.  Reds--especially big tannic ones--tend to overwhelm sushi's delicate flavors, and when combined with wasabi they can spell culinary disaster (spicy foods can turn up the alcohol 'heat' in red wines).  When choosing a white wine, you should generally avoid anything with heavy oak influence or anything that's overly sweet--though these types of wines can work with oilier types of fish.

To prove my point, I recently staged a take-out sushi and wine pairing experiment.  (Can you think of something better to do on a Tuesday night?) Along with a variety of sushi favorites was a selection of wines, which included the Duckhorn Vineyards 2007 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley), Windy Ridge 2006 Chardonnay (Central Coast), Frei Brothers 2006 Chardonnay (Russian River Valley), Bridlewood 2007 Viognier (Central Coast), Handley 2006 Gewurztraminer (Anderson Valley) and Frei Brothers 2006 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley).  Here are some brief style descriptions to set the stage (reviews and ratings of these wines can be found on the WRO Reviews page):

• Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc:  Crisp, with grapefruit and passionfruit flavors.
• Windy Ridge Chardonnay:  A fresh and fruity 'unoaked' Chard.
• Frei Brothers Chardonnay:  Toasty butterscotch flavors, with a crisp finish.
• Bridlewood Viognier:  Aromatic and lush, but without oak influence. 
• Handley Gewurztraminer:  Floral and spicy, but not sweet. 
• Frei Brothers Pinot Noir:  Black cherry and vanilla in a medium-bodied style.

To keep things fairly simple, I chose four common varieties of sushi: maguro nigiri (tuna), hamachi nigiri (yellowtail), California roll and spicy tuna roll. 

The winning wine with the maguro was the Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc, which paired nicely with the fish--even when dipped in soy sauce.  The Windy Hill Chardonnay was also a good match, but the oak-influenced Frei Brothers Chard was too rich for the sushi.  The Bridlewood Viognier would work in a pinch, but the Handley Gewurztraminer and Frei Brothers Pinot clashed. 

I expected similar results for the hamachi, but there were a few differences.  The Sauvignon Blanc and Windy Hill Chardonnay were tasty matches for the mild, buttery fish.  The Frei Brothers Chardonnay paired better than it did with the maguro, but this time the Viognier didn't work.  For those people who think they have to drink red wine with everything, the Pinot Noir wasn't bad.  However, the Gewurztraminer-and-hamachi pairing was just plain awful. 

The California roll, with its rich crab, mayo and avocado interior, brought out the melon and bell pepper notes in the Sauvignon Blanc.  The Central Coast Chardonnay retained its balance without taking on any alcohol burn, but the Viognier tasted 'hot' when paired with the roll.  The Frei Chard was too much for the roll's mild crabby goodness, but the Pinot was surprisingly decent. 

I had guessed that the Gewurztraminer would work well with the spicy tuna roll, since that variety is usually great with spicy Asian food, but not so in this case.  (Poor Handley Gewurz--it really is a delicious wine!) The spicy tuna was no better with the Pinot--no surprise there--and it was just OK with the Central Coast Chardonnay.  The Sauvignon Blanc cut through the spice a bit, but the wine ended up tasting a little hot. 

Okay, so sometimes it really is better to drink beer....