Crisp, dry, refreshing white wines are known to be a perfect match for sushi. They should be neutral or semi-aromatic to not overpower the subtle flavours and delicacy of raw fish, and ideally be unoaked, for the same reason.
Different styles for different sushi
Of course there is a range of sushi, and a typical meal will have a succession of flavours and textures ranging from soft, creamy tuna to firmer prawn, and fleshy eel. A relatively versatile bottle is therefore required to handle the nuances on the plate.
I must confess that my go-to wine for sushi is normally sparkling: be it Champagne or an English Sparkling Wine. The delicate mousse plays with the different textures of sushi, the crisp acidity cleanses the palate in between bites, and the toasty/brioche notes from the traditional method of production (ageing the wine on lees in bottle) draw out the savoury umami flavours of sushi.
Though sometimes a still wine is preferred due to budget or just personal preferences, and while some lighter styles of red can also complement sushi (a chilled, light body, Pinot Noir or Gamay for instance), it’s mostly unoaked, light to medium body, crisp, dry, white wines that pair well with sushi.
Taste-testing the options
I was recently introduced to a wonderful, simple, and high quality sushi menu in my area (more info below). I was looking forward to trying an array of traditional nigiri and rolls, though the wine geek's dilemma immediately set in: “which wine should I open?” There were many fine contenders in the wine fridge, but this proved a good opportunity to settle the score on the ideal wine and sushi pairing. And I wasn’t going to be the only judge, I recruited an important critic to the panel: my husband, a wine drinker, but not a wine geek, in fact a self-confessed amateur. This is the best possible person to test out my options since he likes wine, but has no preconceptions over particular styles or what the ideal match should be.
I selected five wines that I knew to be dry, with a refreshing, crisp acidity and that were either neutral or semi-aromatic in style. No oaky Chardonnay or floral bouquet of Viognier tonight! Although Riesling is generally an aromatic grape, the Alsace version is more savoury, restrained, and dry, therefore a good option. Gruner Veltliner also varies in style, but in this case a simple and youthful example from Kamptal was chosen. A Smaragd GV might be interesting too, but as it's riper and bigger it could be too intense for delicate sushi. The Muscadet chosen had the words Sur Lie on the label which means the wine was aged on its lees (the dead yeast that fermented the grape juice into wine) and gives it a lovely creamy sensation despite the brisk acidity. In blind tastings Albariño can be mistaken for Riesling, Gruner Veltliner.. or Furmint, depending on the style, but generally speaking it is dry, refreshing, with floral and peach/apricot aromas, and can have a wonderful streak of salinity running through it which makes it so enticing. Finally the Chablis: crystalline, chiselled, and crisp. It is a classic fine white wine, that is at once traditional, but also trendy depending on the producer and style. The one I had is from one of the largest Premier crus: Vaillons; and from an excellent vintage: 2017, perhaps a bit too early to drink now as it could continue ageing beautifully, but what's a wine and sushi tasting without Chablis?
I poured them to be tasted blind, before and with the sushi. We filled out a short questionnaire recording our impressions with and without food, and noted down aspects of balance, texture, contrasting sensations, and overall best experience.
Wine tasting notes before and with sushi
William Fevre Premier Cru Vaillons 2017 Chablis, France
Chablis taste: high acid and linear, laced with lime and apple fruit flavours. Initially restrained, but opens beautifully and shows savoury mineral depth.
Chablis with Sushi: the high acid is immediately softened by the fish and rice. It feels in balance, without dominating the various textures or flavours.
Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño 2018 Rías Baixas, Spain
Albariño taste: refreshing and bursting with flavours of peach and honeysuckle. It is broader on the palate (less linear than the Chablis), more mouthfilling and fuller body, with a touch of pithy bitterness on the finish. Dry and crisp but lower in acid than the Chablis was.
Albariño with Sushi: the peachy floral flavours seem to retreat one step while a saline mineral note shines through with the sushi (tuna in particular).
Domaine de la Pepiere, Clos Des Briords Muscadet 2018 Loire, France [Sur Lie]
Muscadet taste: light, crisp, and notably neutral in aromas. The main feature here is a savoury, brioche, creamy note (from the ageing on lees). The palate is refreshing, mineral driven, and reminiscent of an Atlantic oyster.
Muscadet with Sushi: this wine transformed with a bite of salmon maki (dipped in soy). It was still cool and crisp, but suddenly had more savoury depth and layers to it. Delicious!
Domæne Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2018 Kamptal, Austria
Gruner Veltliner taste: zippy with green freshness, slight white pepper and pea pod aromas, crisp and dry.
Gruner Veltliner with Sushi: still very zesty, the acidity softened very slightly, but remained high with the sushi and showed less of a food-wine match transformation compared to the other wines.
Cave de Ribeauvillé, Osterberg Grand Cru Riesling 2015 Alsace, France
Riesling taste: Lots of intensity on the nose with developing petrol minerality. Abundant apricot and floral notes but also a savoury side keeping it in check. Lovely depth on the palate too, might it be overpowering for sushi?
Riesling with Sushi: A powerful wine that could handle the mackerel nigiri, ginger, soy sauce, and even a touch of wasabi. Yet did not overpower the delicacy of the fish. Lovely mineral intensity and richness on the palate played with the sushi textures and flavours.
The Wine and Food Pairing Set-up
Wines were chilled to 6 degrees Celsius, poured into Spiegelau Authentis glasses, numbered 1-5 blind (for my husband, I knew what they were).
My husband also tasted through the wines before the sushi, and his feedback was that he didn’t particularly like any of the wines on their own. He found them “too sharp” (high acid) and tasting them one after another without food made them less and less appealing. (Fair point! Wine really does come to life with food).
When pressed, he said his preference was for wine 2 because it was balanced and mineral and not too sharp, and his least favourite was wine 5 as he found the petrol aromas unpleasant
The Sushi Selection
This was a beautiful selection of nigiri and rolls prepared by a local sushi chef, Diego Culotta. Originally from Argentina, he trained as a general chef 15 years ago in Buenos Aires then specialised in sushi 10 years ago. He studied at Tokyo Sushi Academy in Tokyo and returns every year to learn new techniques.
After three years of making sushi at Chisou in Mayfair, the current covid crisis has led him to shift gears and start up his own sushi-catering business from his home in Chiswick.
The quality is superb, from the home-made ginger and soy sauce, outstanding rice, and fresh, locally sourced fish. Everything is very flavourful, and details like seared squid and red mullet that give a smokey sensation make his style of preparation very interesting.
He and his wife, Flo, are currently servicing Chiswick with private pre-orders of sushi on Thursdays and Fridays. Contact via instagram/oke.sushi
While all of the wines were delicious with sushi, they also offered subtle nuances that accentuated the flavours and textures of different fish.
My husband’s feedback was that all of the wines tasted much better with the food, and he found a few especially exciting matches (all the wines were blind to him). He still thought wine 2 (Albariño) went well with everything, and ironically ended up loving wine 5 (Alsace Riesling) and noting that its richness went especially well with the richness of the Tuna nigiri.
I also enjoyed all of the wines with the sushi and would happily order a single bottle of any of the five to pair with a sushi meal. However, the standout for me was the Muscadet. This particular wine is made from very old-vines and had a wonderful savoury brioche note which seemed to be accentuated by the sushi dipped in soy sauce. It was crisp and refreshing while the savoury note enhanced the umami sensation. and perhaps reminiscent of my usual match: traditional-method sparkling wine which also offers the brioche and toast notes) as both wines are aged on lees.
So which white wine goes best with sushi? It really is a matter of personal taste, but I would steer clear of anything too aromatic or heavy in favour of more neutral, lighter styles so they don’t dominate the delicate flavour of sushi, otherwise there are many delicious matches to explore. If I did a further taste comparison it would be interesting to try a Santorini Assyrtiko, a dry Furmint, and certainly a Japanese white wine from the Koshu grape.