The New Rules of Pairing Wine with Sushi

© Daniel Krieger

By Carson Demmond Posted July 27, 2016

What works with the Japanese staple? More than you might think.

When Garrett Smith, beverage director of NYC’s acclaimed omakase den Sushi Nakazawa, serves red wine alongside chef Daisuke’s artful nigiri, he still sees diners recoil in surprise. “A common phrase I hear is, ‘I don’t want to break any rules,’” says Smith. So, in addition to the challenge of pairing with a range of light/delicate to earthy/umami flavors, he has the added task of quelling certain preconceptions.

Champagne and Riesling—uncontested sushi-pairing champions—take up a solid portion of his wine list’s real estate, but Smith loves opening up Burgundy and even richer reds from California. “The idea is to follow the progression of flavors that the chef is plating,” he says, “and red wine really fits in by the time we get to the third or fourth plate, which is generally the silver fish, like mackerel, yellowtail, crab or different kinds of shrimp.”

Fish texture, he argues, is often more significant to its pairing possibilities than flavor alone. “You have to think about the oil content, if the skin will be included, or if there’s roe, which adds another structural element. Each fish gets treated differently, so if there’s a sear on it or something like a Japanese mustard or ginger, that will add richness.”

As the menu crescendos into more assertive flavors (they age their yellowtail in-house for 8 days, so it’s even funkier than the ubiquitous amberjack), Smith often finds himself reaching for Gamay. “A traditional pairing for those sorts of fish in the sake world would be a Yamahai, which is a natural fermentation sake,” he says. “What’s unique about those is they tend toward more umami flavors, which in turn brings out sweetness in the fish. Gamay from Beaujolais is planted on crushed granite soil and has all this mineral tone and earthiness, which will interact the same way with those styles of fish—coax out sweetness.” Its acidity is a great counter to brininess or oiliness, too.

For classic toro and medium fatty tuna? That’s where fuller-bodied reds come into play. “The fat of tuna is like steak fat,” says Smith. “Tannin in a red wine can pick that up and make it taste even more buttery.” His go-to is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains, since “it also goes so well with the iron-like edge that tuna brings.”

Red wine aside, Smith’s all-time favorite wine/sushi combo is Grüner Veltliner with squid. “Chef uses shiso and a plum paste in the squid preparation, so it’s briny, herbal, and salty-sweet at the same time,” he says. “A Grüner with a bit of floral character plays off the texture so well, and the herbal elements of both the wine and shiso go together beautifully. I spent a good amount of time finding just the right bottle and finally landed on the Stadt Krems ‘Wachtberg Reserve’ from the Kremstal. It has a gorgeous white fruit quality that’s just perfect with squid, scallop, or any white fish.”

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