Pairing Sushi and Cheap Supermarket Wines?
Yes, if You Know How to Match!
by Randal Caparoso
everyone knows, is the mother of invention. So it is with sushi
and wine. For many of us, sushi bars have become the Chinese restaurants
of twenty, thirty years ago. They satisfy our craving for consistency,
not to mention the intense and exotic; but the food is so much more
refreshing, light and simple compared to Chinese cuisines, yet certainly
no less sophisticated. But what do you drink with it?
is no question that beer and sake (especially chilled sakes)
are ideal choices for sushi. The stony, yeasty, mildly sweet, but
full-bodied taste of sakes is a natural with raw fish sitting on
mildly vinegary sushi rice. For even livelier effects, the combination
of effervescent, malty beer with those wasabi-tinged pillows of
pleasure can attack you like a bad habit in the middle of the night.
However, an enormous number of us prefer wine; and while it doesn't
seem quite so natural, with a little bit of thought you can pick
some wines that are perfectly delicious with sushi and sashimi.
There is, for instance, a wine that is cold, light and bubbly like
beer, and crisp, yeasty and sometimes sweet-edged like sake: Extra
Dry or Brut Champagne. Whether French, Californian, Spanish or otherwise,
an off-dry, steely crisp sparkling wine does a great job of freshening
the palate between bites of hamachi, maguro (tuna), or even tamago
(egg) sushi. You can't go wrong. In fact, it seems almost decadent
to be drinking a $100 bottle of creamy, delicate Perrier-Jouet "Fleur
Champagne" with rice. But what a way to go!
of course, for everyday drinking, sparkling wine is not really a
practical choice since, if it takes you more than a couple of days
to go through a bottle, you end with something flat and lemony.
So to find out exactly which everyday, supermarket variety table
wines do best with sushi, a few years ago a small group of us sat
down in a Honolulu sushi restaurant called Sushi Sasabune.
We brought four different "supermarket" brands
of wine, all retailing for between $7 and $14 bottles in retail
stores across the country:
Sémillon-Chardonnay (Southeast Australia)
• Fetzer, Mendocino Gewurztraminer (California)
• Buena Vista, Lake County Sauvignon Blanc (California)
• Mirassou, Monterey Pinot Noir (California)
WINE TO PAIR WITH ALBACORE TUNA
the first course, our master chef dispensed with the sushi rice
and went right into bonsai sized filets of tuna served sashimi style,
over a house ponzu that added a delectable balance of earthen, citrusy,
ocean-like flavors. It seemed almost sacrilegious to disturb the
balance within the dish itself. This, of course, would have been
a perfect moment for a Perrier-Jouet Champagne; but in lieu of that,
we thought our choice of medium bodied, dry white — the Rosemount
Sémillon-Chardonnay — did just fine. The Sémillon-Chardonnay's
smooth, almost glycerol-textured quality seemed to coat the palate
and broaden the taste of the tuna, making a very successful match.
But we also had a second favorite, which was — surprise! — a red
wine. We found that the soft, delicate, slightly smoky and pepperminty
spice scented Mirassou Pinot Noir seemed to have its own little
dance going with the earthy ponzu broth; and the fleshy taste of
the tuna was more than rich enough to handle this easy going red.
WHAT TO PAIR WITH BABY SQUID AND LOUISIANA BLUE CRAB
second dish — a delicacy which would give any five star chef a
run for the money in panache and execution — came with a smidgen
of soy tinged with sweet sesame oil; an exotic twist which the smoothly
balanced Rosemount Sémillon-Chardonnay handled with ease. But on
the slightly sweeter side, the Fetzer Gewurztraminer added to the
exotic effect with its soft, juicy, sweet apple and lychee-like
fruitiness. But when we tried the crab stuffed squid with the bone
dry, mildly acidic Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc, we found that the
sesame flavored, sweet crab taste made the wine taste lean, dry,
almost metallic — not exactly a pleasant combination.
WINES TO PAIR WITH BIG EYE TUNA SUSHI
this course, we were advised to dip the sushi into the Sasabune
house ponzu; and when we did this, we were almost shocked to find
that the best wine was not a white, but the Mirassou Pinot Noir,
which seemed to mirror the lush oiliness of the fish and add a snappy
balance to the touch of wasabi in the rice and soy in the ponzu.
Our second choice was the Rosemount Sémillon-Chardonnay; and by
then, we were really beginning to appreciate the value of this wine's
rounded, slightly oily texture. High acid white wines are not necessarily
the best with sushi! The more acidic Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc,
for instance, ended up tasting overly sharp and dry with the tuna
sushi; whereas the Sémillon-Chardonnay seemed to round out and enhance
the sumptuous, raw taste of big eye on rice.
WINE TO MATCH WITH HAMACHI SUSHI
sushi chef craftily tucked quiet but effective hits of wasabi under
this rich, creamy, almost sensually oiled fish; and again we found
that smooth texture, rather than acidic edginess, was the ideal
quality in a matching wine. The Mirassou Pinot Noir seemed to shine
in this context, whereas all the whites (even the Sémillon-Chardonnay)
seemed to crumble under the hamachi's wallop of flavor.
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sushi, you can say, is a totally different bag. First of all, rather
than raw, it is aggressively marinated by sushi chefs; in Sasabune's
case, with the addition of dark, toasted sesame seeds, giving a
smoky, earthy taste with which the red wines proved far superior
over the whites. The smoky toned Mirassou Pinot Noir, of course,
was a winner. I
would say that any sushi - such as those layered with pompano, octopus
and eel — with the smoky taste of toasted sesame seeds (or else
the strong earthy flavor of sesame oil) is probably better off with
either a light, easy drinking red, or a dry rosé made from
an intense red grape like Pinot Noir.
NEW ZEALAND OYSTERS AND PINOT NOIR
finished us off with their own version of a Rockefeller — raw oysters
nestled into their gnarly beds with a silky white "dynamite"
sauce, laced with ponzu — and this resulted in the most startling
discovery of all. Hands down, the best match was the Mirassou Pinot
Noir! Red wine with oysters? This goes to show how sauces and seasonings
can alter the taste of shellfish, especially when the ingredients
add earthy, creamy dimensions that just make you want to drink smooth,
earthy red wines, as opposed to crisp, fruity white wines.
anything, the lesson we came away with from this experience is that
not only are table wines a good match for sushi, they can enhance
the taste immeasurably - the same way in which they enhance foods
of, say, European origin. So go ahead and do your own mixing and
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