Modern dining focuses more and more on healthy and light meals. And traditional Japanese sushi fits perfectly into this trend. It’s flavorful and delicate, yet low in calories and made from natural, healthy ingredients. And what could be better than combining healthy sushi and wine?
What Is Sushi?
Sushi is a traditional dish from Japan. Its main ingredient is steamed, vinegared rice, combined with seafood such as fish or shellfish and vegetables. In many cases, the ingredients are wrapped in seaweed sheets.
You can find countless sushi dishes with many different ingredients, which might be raw or cooked. All dishes belong to one of the following sushi categories:
- When thinking about sushi, Maki is often what first comes to mind. Maki rolls are basically seaweed sheets filled with rice and other ingredients, including fish, shellfish, or vegetables.
- Uramaki sushi is very similar to Maki, with one difference: While the fish and vegetables are wrapped inside the seaweed, the rice is on the exterior as an additional layer.
- Temaki sushi contains similar ingredients to Maki or Uramaki sushi. But it looks quite different: The seaweed comes in the form of big cones filled with seafood, vegetables, and rice. The portions are significantly bigger, and thus it’s not as easy to share as the small Maki rolls.
- Nigiri sushi is made primarily from steamed rice topped with wasabi and a bit of seafood.
- Many people also consider Sashimi as a type of sushi. But actually, it’s not sushi, but a distinct dish. The main difference to sushi is the lack of rice and seaweed. So Sashimi is mainly raw seafood, sometimes with small portions of vegetables.
All types of sushi typically come with one or more sauces or dips. Among them are:
- Soy sauce: a classic in Asian cuisine, featuring both salty and sweet notes
- Ponzu sauce: an advanced soy sauce that features citrus and ginger and thus has not only sweet and salty but also sour and spicy notes
- Unagi sauce (also: eel sauce): a mostly sweet sauce with salty notes, mixed from soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin
- Wasabi: a very spicy, thick paste containing horseradish and mustard
- Vinegar-pickled ginger: not a sauce, but nevertheless a common side dish that adds spicy heat as well as tart notes
How to Pair Sushi and Wine
When looking for a wine to pair with sushi, there are some things you should keep in mind:
- Sushi is light food, and bold wines will overpower it. Thus, better go for light- to medium-bodied wine that isn’t too high in alcohol.
- Old World wines are better options than New World wines because these are often too intense, especially when oaked.
- Most white wines are great with sushi, given they are dry or off-dry. Stay away from very sweet wines.
- If you’re a red wine lover, your options are limited. Richer sushi preparations with tuna or salmon go well with light-bodied reds. But full-bodied reds are a no-go.
- The combination of tannins and fish can create a very unpleasant metallic taste. So avoid high-tannin wines.
- Spicy sushi dishes call for wines that regulate their heat. Sparkling wines, as well as sweet still wines, are good choices.
With these recommendations in mind, let’s check out some of the best wine and sushi pairings in detail.
Tuna Tataki and Wine
Tuna Tataki is an easy-to-make dish. It contains quick-seared tuna cuts spiced with salt and pepper and served with a Ponzu sauce. The sauce consists of lemon juice, ginger, and soy sauce. Some chefs also add red pepper flakes to make it even hotter.
Tataki sushi combines salty, spicy, and slightly sour flavors with delicate tuna meat. Unlike other seafood, tuna is chewy but not overly fishy.
A great wine pairing for Tuna Tataki is an off-dry Riesling, for instance, from Germany or Austria. The wine’s citrus flavors work very well with the Ponzu sauce, while its subtle sweetness creates an interesting contrast to the meal’s spicy note.
As tuna is a relatively fatty type of fish, Tuna Tataki is one of very few sushi dishes to handle a red wine. It should be a light one with a low tannin level, though. Try a Pinot Noir or, alternatively, a Beaujolais.
Spicy Tuna Sushi and Wine
If you are into very hot food, you might like spicy tuna sushi. Unlike Tataki, it comes as Uramaki rolls, with rice covering the outside of a seaweed sheet. The inside is filled with ripe avocado and raw tuna marinated with a mix of mayonnaise and sriracha sauce. The sriracha sauce is where the heat comes from: It’s a hot sauce made from chili peppers, garlic, sugar, and vinegar.
Spicy tuna rolls are very flavorful with sweet, savory, and spicy aromas. As mentioned, the tuna doesn’t have the typical fishy taste, so these rolls are fantastic for people who dislike fish.
Just like Tuna Tataki, spicy tuna rolls go very well with off-dry Riesling, too. These wines are high in acidity, so they can easily cut through the rich fish as well as the spicy mayonnaise mix. And their subtle sweetness is an excellent counterplayer to the sushi’s heat.
Unagi Sushi Rolls and Wine
Another widely loved type of Uramaki sushi is the Unagi roll. Its ingredients are freshwater eel, cucumber, and rice. The fish and the cucumber are rolled into a Nori seaweed sheet and covered with rice and sesame seeds. Unagi sushi typically comes with Unagi sauce. This sweet and salty sauce is a mix of soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin, a special type of Japanese rice wine.
Eel is known for its soft texture and its bold aromas that feature a bit of sweetness. The Unagi sauce contributes additional sweet notes and some saltiness to the flavor mix.
When looking for a wine to pair with Unagi sushi, consider a white wine with intense citrus flavors. Especially highly aromatic wines such as Gewürztraminer or Grüner Veltliner are delicious matches. They feature aromas of green and citrus fruits as well as herbal and spicy notes.
Dragon Rolls and Wine
Dragon Rolls are comparable to Unagi rolls. They also have an outside layer of rice around Nori sheets and an inside filling from seafood. Instead of eel, chefs use shrimps to make Dragon Rolls, though. They coat the shrimps with a tempura batter made from flour, water, cornstarch, and eggs first and deep-fry them next. Finally, they top the roll with a slice of ripe avocado to give it a dragon-like look.
The soft avocado and the crunchy shrimp tempura combine deliciously with the rice and the Nori sheets. Unagi sauce rounds up the dish with its salty and sweet aromas.
The best wine to drink with Dragon Rolls is a dry white wine with a good acidity level. Try a Spanish Albariño. This light-bodied wine offers aromas of citrus and honeydew while being very low in tannins; just the perfect match for Dragon Rolls. Alternatively, you can choose the formerly mentioned Gewürztraminer or Grüner Veltliner wines.
The crispy shrimps also pair well with sparkling wines, particularly when you serve your Dragon Rolls with very spicy sauce. The sparkler’s bubbles help clean your palate after each bite and take away the dish’s heat. So try a Champagne or a Prosecco:
- Ayala Brut Majeur
- Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois
- Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle No. 24
- S. Anna Brut Prosecco
- Ca’ Furlan Prosecco
More Details on Champagne and Prosecco: CHAMPAGNE VS. PROSECCO – WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
California Rolls and Wine
Among the most popular sushi dishes in the United States are California Rolls. As the name suggests, they were actually invented in California, more specifically Los Angeles. California Rolls are Uramaki dishes, too, meaning that the rice forms the roll’s outside. The inside is filled with cooked crab meat, cucumber, avocado, and Japanese mayonnaise. Some chefs also add tropical fruits to the rolls.
California Rolls feature an exciting mix of salty, spicy, and sweet aromas. The mayonnaise adds a flavor layer that makes this dish unique.
This flavor profile goes exceptionally well with a fruity Chardonnay wine. The crisp white is perfectly able to handle the meal’s rich flavors, and its citrus flavors combine deliciously with its sweet and fruity aromas.
- Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey Bourgogne Hautes Cotes de Beaune Blanc Bout de Monde 2019
- Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc Les Setilles 2019
- Bouchard Pere & Fils Beaune du Chateau Premier Cru Blanc 2017
Sparkling wine lovers can pick a sparkling rosé for their California Rolls. Especially French styles with red berry aromas make excellent pairings:
Salmon Nigiri and Wine
Many sushi lovers are into salmon because it lacks the typical fish taste, just like tuna. Thus, Salmon Nigiri is very popular, and it’s also easy to make: You simply prepare a small portion of vinegared rice and top it with a slice of salmon. The salmon can be either raw or smoked. People who like hot sushi apply some wasabi to the fish, but that’s an optional step.
Salmon is delicate and rich in flavor, making Salmon Nigiri a great match for dry rosé wines. Especially styles from Provence in France add delicious red fruit and floral aromas and create a fascinating flavor mix.
Vegetarian Sushi and Wine
Of course, sushi doesn’t have to contain seafood. You can find many vegetarian variations featuring ingredients like asparagus, cucumber, avocado, or tofu. Modern preparations also come with sweet potato, eggplant, or tropical fruits such as mango or jackfruit.
Vegetarian sushi is typically a bit lighter than seafood sushi. It also lacks intense fishy flavors and is less salty. Depending on the ingredients, it can range from sweet to spicy.
White wines from the Chablis appellation in Burgundy are excellent pairings for vegetarian sushi. Their good acidity levels and their citrus aromas complement most ingredients without overpowering the light dishes. You can either go for the Petit Chablis wines from the region’s outskirts or for the more costly Premier Cru wines. Beware of Grand Cru styles, though. As they age in oak barrels, they might be too powerful for vegetarian sushi.
- Domaine Seguinot-Bordet Petit Chablis 2019
- William Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux 2018
- Domaine Laroche Chablis Les Vaillons Premier Cru Vieilles Vignes 2019
More Details on Chablis Wine: WHY IS BURGUNDY WINE SO GOOD (AND SO EXPENSIVE)?
Traditional Japanese sushi and wine might not be the first pairing that comes to mind. But there are so many great combinations that every sushi lover should try it. So when ordering (or making) it next time, consider a bottle of delicious wine with your sushi.