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Jan 10, 2006
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Wine With . . . Sushi

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


We love sushi, and order it as a take-out supper a couple of times a month.  In the past, we've usually opened a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine with it.  There's something about the bubbles and crisp acidity in these wines that enable them to cut through both the heat of the wasabi and the oiliness of the fish, making the experience seem refreshing rather than heavy. 


We know, however, plenty of sushi lovers who prefer other wines.  In fact, one of our favorite Japanese restaurants, Sushi-Ko in Washington, DC, is owned by a Burgundy fanatic, Daisuke Utagawa, who swears that Cote d'Or reds are the very best wines to pair with sushi.  Since we've been surprised during dinners there by how good that combination can be, we decided to try a wide range of wines for this issue of "Wine With"--still and sparkling, reds, whites, and a rosé, sixteen in all.  


We were at home in Baltimore, so didn't get the meal from Sushi-Ko but instead from our favorite local sushi restaurant, Kiku.  The order included yellowtail, red snapper, and shrimp, as well as a number of maki rolls--spicy tuna, butterfly, rainbow, and the chef's delicious hamachi special.  Which wines worked best?  Well, in one respect the results surprised us.  Many of the white wines that we were confident would pair well turned out to be too light, while reds that we thought might seem too heavy worked fine.  With the whites, a Pinot Grigio from Friuli, a Riesling from South Australia, a Pinot Blanc from Alsace, and a Muscadet all were quickly overpowered by the food.  They ended up tasting not only thin but unpleasantly fishy or metallic.  (This happened with the rosé also.)  Some richer whites, including a Russian River Chardonnay and a Santa Barbara Viognier worked better, but with these the taste of oak seemed a bit off-putting.  We tried five reds.  Our two favorites are recommended below (and we never would have guessed that the Aussie Shiraz would be such a good match), but two others came close--a Santa Cruz Pinot Noir and a Fixin (our nod to chef Utagawa).  In fact, the only red that didn't work was a Dolcetto d'Alba.  As happened with so many of the whites, a wine that tasted subtle on its own seemed non-descript when paired with the sushi.      


But if the still wines surprised us, the sparklers simply confirmed our expectations.  We tried only two, and both were downright delicious with the sushi.  Our guess is that we would be recommending more bubblies if we had tasted more that evening.


Is there some element that connects the wines that worked best?  Not really, though different causes yielded much the same effect.  The top matches all came from wines with contrasting rather than complimentary characters.  The acidity in the Fumé Blanc, the crisp effervescence of the bubblies, and the tannin in both the Saint-Amour and the Shiraz all served as foils for what after all is a sumptuous, succulent dish. 




Approx. Price



Georges DuBoeuf


(Beaujolais, France)

"Domaine du Paradis"


(Imported by WJ Deutsch)





On its own, this cru Beaujolais seemed exuberant and somewhat unfocused, but the sushi reigned in its excesses, making the wine seem more refined, yet still full of juicy flavor.


Dry Creek Vineyard,

Sonoma County


Fumé Blanc






Some Sauvignon Blancs are so lean and acidic that they can cancel out the voluptuous texture of sushi, but this Fumé has enough body to capitalize on it.  The fish, in turn, emphasized the wine's appealing fresh-cut grass character.



Maschio dei Cavalieri,

Prosecco di Valdobbiadene




(Imported by VB Imports)






Nicely balanced and more complex than most renditions, this classy Prosecco was splendid by itself and delicious with the sushi.  The wine's inherent hint of sweetness proved a boon to the salty soy sauce, while its steely finish kept everything in gustatory equilibrium.



Perrier Jouet,



"Grand Brut"


(Imported by Allied Domecq)






Bubbles rule!  One reason we like them so much with sushi is that they scour away the oiliness of the fish, the saltiness of the soy sauce, and the heaviness of the rice.  Beer, of course, can do the same thing, but a classic Champagne like this one provides much more elegance and charm.



Wynns Coonawarra Estate,





(Imported by PWG Vintners)





Wasabi is no friend to wine, but we discovered that the tannins in red wine can help balance its aggressiveness without muffling flavor.  In this case, the synergy between the fish, its trappings, and the firm but fleshy wine made for a rich and satisfying dining experience.