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Pairing Sushi and Cheap Supermarket Wines?

Yes, if You Know How to Match!

by Randal Caparoso

With a little bit of thought, you can pick some inexpensive wines that are perfectly delicious with sushi and sashimi

Necessity, 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?

There 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 de
Champagne" with rice. But what a way to go!

But 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:

Rosemount, Sémillon-Chardonnay (Southeast Australia)
Fetzer, Mendocino Gewurztraminer (California)
Buena Vista, Lake County Sauvignon Blanc (California)
Mirassou, Monterey Pinot Noir (California)

Our findings:

WINE TO PAIR WITH ALBACORE TUNA

For 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

This 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

For 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

Our 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.

BEST WINES FOR ATLANTIC SALMON WITH KELP

Salmon 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

Sasabune 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.

If 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 matching!

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(Updated: 10/04/13 BH)

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