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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Sushi and Wine: The Time Is Now

I must be getting old, because it seems like not so long ago that sushi was reserved only for the most food-adventurous Americans. How many times did I sit at a sushi bar at dinner time or in a tatami room at 2 a.m. enjoying a feast of exotic, sensual, delicious and - so many of my friends thought – perverse and dangerous sashimi: slices of otoro (fatty tuna belly), hamachi (young yellowtail), kanpachi (very young yellowtail), uni (sea urchin roe), saba (mackerel), anakyu-maki (conger eel and cucumber rolled in nori seaweed), and maguro-temaki (hand-rolled cones of dried seaweed filled with tuna?

Some of my 20-something friends could not watch me – or anyone – actually eat raw fish. The hearty souls who stayed at the sushi bar or sat shoeless on bamboo mats, content to sample the miso-shiru (the cleansing clear soup made from fermented soy bean paste, with tofu, scallion, and mushroom condiments) and cleanly-fried shrimp and vegetable tempura, had to listen to me proselytize about the culinary and even the spiritual virtues of eating nigiri- sushi (raw fish on vinegared rice cubes) or sashimi (the fish, pristine and alone, bowl of rice on the side). I tried, mostly in vain, to get my friends to taste what I considered to be the greatest delicacy, the most lovely gift of the oceans. They liked the sweet/sour palate-cleansing gari (pickled ginger) as a culturally-devoided snack, but thought I was truly insane as I preached and pontificated about the purifying purge of wasabi (literally, “mountain hollyhock”) the green horseradish, which I preferred only when it reached its ultimate power: namida (tears).

Like so many new converts to a belief system – and I believed in sushi as the food of Nature, a Sacrament of the Seas, a new and welcome form of Pleasure, a sybaritic Seduction, a Way of Life – I observed and I copied. I knew how to order sushi, how to eat with chopsticks, and how to ask for hot sake and/ or Kirin and Sapporo beer to drink; sushi etiquette seemed easy to absorb. The idea that fine wine might be the ideal accompaniment to my new ideal, and newly- idealized, favorite dining experience never even occurred to me.

Fast-forward 25 (all right, 30) years. I still love sushi in all its forms, but would never think of ruining it with hot sake, warmed to mask its off-flavors. I love America’s new love affair with fine sakes, and am honored to drink chilled and elegant ginjoshu (premium), koshu (aged), or daiginjoshu (super premium, especially shizuku, or “trickle” sake) with sashimi (surprisingly, I find that the strong rice flavors in sushi overwhelm the much more delicate rice flavors in premium sakes; stick with sashimi). In a pinch, lager beers, such as Kirin or Sapporo Draft are inoffensive and refreshing backgrounders to sushi, and a wide variety of green teas (ocha) paired with sushi can make for exciting combinations (and its own article). But what about wine with sushi?

For all of us who love wine and love sushi, our time has come. Before we talk about what wine with what fish, and how to deal with the heat of wasabi, and the salt of soy, and the vinegar in the rice and in the ginger, we need to take a moment to look at the changing nature of sushi – and “sushi restaurants” - in the United States. Sounds pretty lofty, but it is actually an important and practical first step.

One thing that hasn’t changed about sushi is that it is not a meal that you make at home. Because of the delicate skills and years of experience it takes to create fine sushi, as well as the difficulty consumers will have in getting sushi-grade fish (even if we know how to judge what is and isn’t acceptable, which most of us don’t), we leave the sushi-making to the cadre of mostly Japanese sushi chefs working in sushi bars in major cities, suburbs, and towns throughout the United States.

The sushi bars of my youth are, thankfully, still around: small places with minimalist décor, the freshest fish, and sushi chefs who know what you want even before you sit down. These are great places to eat sushi, but ask for a wine list in almost any of these places, and you will be disappointed. The list will be short and uninviting, reinforcing the old ideas of sushi with beer, hot sake, or aged whiskey (à la Japanese corporate executives who keep their own stash of single-barrel Bourbon or Single Malt Scotch in small locked hutches behind the sushi bar).

Over the last ten to fifteen years the image of sushi, sushi bars, and sushi chefs in this country has gone through a dramatic transformation. In addition to tradition-bound sushi bars, we now have many chefs and restaurateurs, who make wine an important focus of their restaurant and an integral part of the dining experience. Some names that come to mind are Nobu Matsuhisa, with esteemed restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and other cities, Daisuke Utagawa, proprietor of Washington D.C.’s much-loved Sushi-Ko, and Yoshi Tome, the owner of Sushi Ran, a 50 seat sushi bar in Sausalito, California.

What Matsuhisa and Utagawa have done is elevate the image of sushi by offering the genuine article in its most pristine form, but also expanding the notion of what a sushi bar and restaurant can be, by offering their own creations; dishes based on sashimi and sushi, but raised to the level of elgant dining. A perfect example is Matsuhisa’s “Sashimi Salad,” a delectable combination of thin slices of the finest raw fish served on a bed of bitter greens, with a ponzu-infused sauce. This is a dish made for enjoying with wine, and as served at Nobu in Manhattan, with its celebrity clientele, beautiful décor, hard-to-get reservations, and wine director Daniel Johnnes (who also chooses all of the wines for sister restaurant Montrachet, the best Burgundy wine list in the United States).

Utagawa expounds on the “fifth taste,” umami, a non-specific sweet/salty taste found in shiitake mushrooms, and certain sushi fish, especially mackerel, tuna, and bonito. Umami, discovered in Japan in 1908, will also heighten our sensitivity to bitterness in wines, such as harsh tannins. Utagawa has decided, however, that soft and moderate tannins can enhance umami, and so Sushi-Ko has an all-Burgundy wine list; 25 whites (all Chardonnay) and 95 reds (all pinot noirs)!

At Sushi Ran, the menu is much more focused on traditional raw fish, but owner Tome, born in Okinawa, and his local Bay Area clientele just love to drink wine, and they don’t draw the line at sushi. Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Merlot flow as freely as any white wines at Sushi Ran.

Finally, we know the idea of sushi and wine has come of age in the United States, when sushi is “adopted” by our own favorite restaurant cuisine: Italian. One of the really exciting restaurants in New York City is Esca, owned by Mario Butali and Joe Bastianich. Esca (“Bait”) serves wonderfully fresh “crudo,” slivers of many kinds of raw fish, denuded except for olive oil, salt and pepper. The wine list is largely white and based heavily in the wines of Friuli Venezia-Giulia. Not a hot sake in sight.

So what wines are memorable matches for sushi and sashimi?

The easiest and most elegant choice when thinking about wine and sushi is Brut sparkling wine, especially fine, light-to-medium-bodied fruit-driven méthode champenoise bubblies from California (favorites include Roederer Estate, Iron Horse, Domaine Chandon, and Schramsberg) Oregon (Argyle), New York’s Finger Lakes (Château Frank and Glenora), and New Mexico (Gruët). Also, we achieve a wonderful marriage of tastes when we pair Blanc de Blancs Cava from Spain and Brut Prosecco from Italy with snapping fresh fish.

Fine Champagne should by no means be relegated to second place, but makes for a more serious and cerebral match when paired with both the briniest and richest fishes. The mineral qualities of fine Champagne – the soils of the Champagne region are chalk – are highlighted by sushi, Champagne’s earthiness contrasting the brininess of raw shellfish, and its bubbles cleansing the palate of the fat of otoro and sake (salmon), and the oiliness of saba (mackerel). You can’t go wrong with sushi and fine sparklers: a meditation on the flavors of the earth and the flavors of the sea.

White wines with sushi seem like a given to anyone who likes white wine and fish. True, many whites will pair beautifully with raw fish but try to avoid oaky, buttery, full-bodied, high-alcohol whites (that felt good!). What we don’t want to taste with the wonderfully delicate flavors of sushi is toasted wood, nor a buttery nose and taste brought on by malolactic fermentation. High alcohol, especially as it interacts with shoyu (soy sauce) or murasaki (“purple;”a soy-based sauce prepared by the restaurant), is a problem. Salt amplifies alcohol and alcohol amplifies salt. So forget those oaky, creamy, alcoholic Chardonnays, and make a switch to Riesling “Kabinett,” especially dry (trocken) or semi-dry (halbtrocken) versions from the Mosel Saar Ruwer wine region of Germany.

Also, enjoy your sushi with stainless-steel fermented, fresh California Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino (but stay away from its oaky twin, Fumé Blanc).

I recently tried some crackling fresh hamachi and unagi with a fruit-driven RH Phillips Viognier, made from grapes grown in the Dunnigan Hills region of California, and the combo was swingin.’ A lighter example of Viognier, this wine left a pleasing soft citrus tang after every bite of fish (also look for Rabbit Ridge, Callaway, and Bonterra versions of Viognier).

If you are having a sampling of some of the brinier and lighter-flavored fish and seafood, such as ama-ebi (raw shrimp), hotategai (scallop), tai (sea bream), or masu (trout), I can think of no other finer match than a white Vinho Verde from the Minho region of Portugal. This inexpensive gem, with fruity acidity and a bot of spritz, is a delightful match with very light fish and seafood, and because of its low alcohol, shoyu or murasaki sauces should enhance the overall taste experience.

A multicultural marriage made in heaven? The white wines of Alsace, France and the sushi and sashimi of Japan. Gewurztraminer, with its exotically spicy, litchi-driven nose and fruity, bone dry flavors is an even more amazing wine when paired with fattier cuts of sashimi. Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc, all of them dry and all of them tropical/green fruit on the nose and in the finish, makes them the perfect match for not only the fish but the sushi rice too. Last but not least, the perfumed, sexy Muscat d’Alsace (look for Domaine Weinbach or Kreüzer) will carry you away in a blissful melange: a bite of hirami (flounder), a sip of Muscat, a bite of kajiki (swordfish), a sip of Muscat……

Other white wines worth a try: true Chablis or Petit Chablis, which is simply unoaked Chardonnay; stay with the simple AOC, not the more complex (and expensive) Premier Cru or Grand Cru versions; Galestro, a light, fruity but dry wine from Tuscany, which, by law, can be no more than 11% alcohol; and believe it or not, some of the less-sweet examples of White Zinfandel, such as Beringer or Bogle.

Look at the color of a dry, fruity rosé from Navarra, Spain, or from Tavel, in the Rhône Valley of France, or a Bardolino Chiaretto from Veneto, Italy. Now look at the color of sashimi cuts of sake (salmon),toro or chu-toro (choice or marbled tuna belly), maguro (tuna)….well, you get the picture, and it’s a beautiful shade of pink. Rosé, with its strawberry /kiwi fruit and dry finish, is the perfect accompaniment to soy-infused fatty fish.

Red wine with sushi? I say yes, with parallel caveats that I voiced for whites (no oak, lactic acid, high alcohol). Here the no-nos are even moderately heavy doses of tannin, high alcohol, and age. Forget the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, the Big Bordeaux, the Brunello di Montalcino, the Rioja Gran Reserva, or any and all “heavy hitters.” More warnings: no to shellfish (too briny), and no to ikura, kazunoko, and uni (respectively salmon roe, herring roe, and sea urchin roe), as they are far too salty, and with any red wine will taste metal (the wine too!). Some good choices for red wine lovers who also love sushi and sashimi:

Beaujolais-Villages and some Cru Beaujolais (including Fleurie, Regníe, Chiroubles, Saint-Amour, and Julienas). Chill these soft reds to accentuate their acidity and “tighten” their fruit character. On the palate, these dry to off-dry wines will carry the fish flavors longer than most whites, and can handle a bite of gari (pickled ginger) with aplomb. Similar positive results: chilled red Côte-du Rhône and Chinon, a juicy red from the Loire Valley.

Soft European reds to consider, from Italy: Vapolicella Classico from Veneto, Freisa and Dolcetto d’Alba from Piemonte, Col-di-Sasso from Tuscany; from Spain: Rioja Crianza, Torres Coronas, Peñaflor; from Portugal: Perequita, JP Vinhos Tinto. Real fruit, no strong tannins. Chill.

From Australia, try a young, inexpensive lighter Shiraz, or a Grenache/Shiraz blend. Chill’em up, and these wines should be all berries, with little distinctive tannic structure. Particularly good with fattier cuts of sashimi, and will align itself well with the salt of shoyu and the sweet/sour gari.

I have had some good experiences with lighter Pinot Noir wines from Oregon, but even better with simple Bourgogne, one of the best bargains in a wine that is 100% Pinot Noir. Producers such as Leflaive, Drouhin, and Latour are easy to find and offer very good value. Try them chilled with lighter fish selections, room temperature for richer sashimi.

Full disclosure: Classic sushi – raw fish with sweet vinegar rice and a touch of wasabi, highlighted with shoyu, and classic sashimi – thin slices of fish, flavored with a sauce of shoyu and wasabi, served with sushi rice, must be altered somewhat to achieve balance with wine. There is no doubt that in most cases the intense heat of wasabi is a wine killer, and shoyu lifts the alcoholic flavors of the wine, which in turn raises the salt levels perceived on the palate. Pickled ginger, in most cases, does not help the cause, as a palate cleanser. Rice does nothing for the wine, but make the dish taste more bland and heavy. So, adjustments must be made.

I recommend negligible amounts of wasabi on the sashimi, if any, and just a touch of shoyu or murasaki. If munching on gari, make sure to taste just a touch as a palate cleanser; it will be as effective as if you ate a whole slice of ginger to the palate, and benefit the wine flavors tremendously. I love wasabi in particular, and certainly I am not above enjoying a slice or two of sashimi with lots of wasabi, real namida level stuff, drinking water, and biting into a few slices of gari to retaste the wondrous heat, cleanse the palate, and after a few deep breaths continue to enjoy sashimi and wine in peace and harmony, leaving my heat-seeking aberrations behind.

Clearly, wine and raw fish were made for each other, even if adjustments in classic presentation and flavor profiles must be made. Perhaps the reason it took so long for so many of us to realize that wine and sashimi can marry is the same reason that so many “ethnic” cuisines and cooking traditions have come late to wine. Remember that when the classic rules for wine and food pairing were being debated, the only foods discussed in the debate were European, especially French, and many of the matches were based on the flavor and texture of classic sauces. How far we’ve come from pairing a Château Margaux with a Béarnaise sauce to pairing a Crianza with a kanpachi (hold the wasabi and shoyu!).

Sushi Vocabulary: Here's a glossary of Japanese sushi terms to help you figure out just what you're ordering in a sushi bar.

Sushi a la carte

* aji -- horse mackerel
* akagai -- ark shell
* ama-ebi -- raw shrimp
* anago -- conger eel
* aoyagi -- round clam
* awabi -- abalone
* ayu -- sweetfish
* buri -- adult yellowtail
* chutoro -- marbled tuna belly
* ebi -- boiled shrimp
* hamachi -- young yellowtail
* hamaguri -- clam
* hamo -- pike conger; sea eel
* hatahata -- sandfish
* hikari-mono -- various kinds of "shiny" fish, such as mackerel
* himo -- "fringe" around an ark shell
* hirame -- flounder
* hokkigai -- surf clam
* hotategai -- scallop
* ika -- squid
* ikura -- salmon roe
* inada -- very young yellowtail
* kaibashira -- eye of scallop or shellfish valve muscles
* kaiware -- daikon-radish sprouts
* kajiki -- swordfish
* kani -- crab
* kanpachi -- very young yellowtail
* karei -- flatfish
* katsuo -- bonito
* kazunoko -- herring roe
* kohada -- gizzard shad
* kuruma-ebi -- prawn
* maguro -- tuna
* makajiki -- blue marlin
* masu -- trout
* meji (maguro) -- young tuna
* mekajiki -- swordfish
* mirugai -- surf clam
* negi-toro -- tuna belly and chopped green onion
* ni-ika -- squid simmered in a soy-flavored stock
* nori-tama -- sweetened egg wrapped in dried seaweed
* otoro -- fatty portion of tuna belly
* saba -- mackerel
* sake -- salmon
* sawara -- spanish mackerel
* sayori -- (springtime) halfbeak
* seigo -- young sea bass
* shako -- mantis shrimp
* shima-aji -- another variety of aji
* shime-saba -- mackerel (marinated)
* shiromi -- seasonal "white meat" fish
* suzuki -- sea bass
* tai -- sea bream
* tairagai -- razor-shell clam
* tako -- octopus
* tamago -- sweet egg custard wrapped in dried seaweed
* torigai -- cockle
* toro -- choice tuna belly
* tsubugai -- japanese "tsubugai" shellfish
* uni -- sea urchin roe

Maki-zushi (sushi rolls)

* maki-mono -- vinegared rice and fish (or other ingredients) rolled in nori seaweed
* tekka-maki -- tuna-filled maki-zushi
* kappa-maki -- cucumber-filled maki-zushi
* tekkappa-maki -- selection of both tuna and cucumber rolls
* oshinko-maki -- -pickled-daikon (radish) rolls
* kaiware-maki -- daikon-sprout roll
* umejiso-maki -- japanese ume plum and perilla-leaf roll
* negitoro-maki -- scallion-and-tuna roll
* chutoro-maki -- marbled-tuna roll
* otoro-maki -- fatty-tuna roll
* kanpyo-maki -- pickled-gourd rolls
* futo-maki -- a fat roll filled with rice, sweetened cooked egg, pickled gourd, and bits of vegetables
* nori-maki -- same as kanpyo-maki; in osaka, same as futo-maki
* natto-maki -- sticky, strong-tasting fermented-soybean rolls
* ana-kyu-maki -- conger eel-and-cucumber rolls
* temaki -- hand-rolled cones made from dried seaweed
* maguro-temaki -- tuna temaki

Other sushi terms

* nigiri(-zushi) -- pieces of raw fish over vinegared rice balls
* edomae-zushi -- same as nigiri-zushi
* chirashi(-zushi) -- assorted raw fish and vegetables over rice
* tekka-don -- pieces of raw tuna over rice
* sashimi -- raw fish (without rice)
* chakin-zushi -- vinegared rice wrapped in a thin egg crepe
* inari-zushi -- vinegared rice and vegetables wrapped in a bag of fried tofu
* oshi-zushi -- osaka-style sushi: squares of pressed rice topped
with vinegared/cooked fish
* battera(-zushi) -- oshi-zushi topped with mackerel
* tataki -- pounded, almost raw fish
* odori-ebi -- live ("dancing") shrimp
* oshinko -- japanese pickles
* neta -- sushi topping
* wasabi -- japanese horseradish
* gari -- vinegared ginger
* shoyu -- soy sauce

Sushi Bar Vocabulary

A special vocabulary is reserved for sushi bars in Japan. Soy sauce is refered to as murasaki ("purple") instead of the normal shoyu. This is because most sushi restaurants have their own house sauce. When asking for tea after the meal, ask for agari ("finished") instead of the normal ocha. Normally the vinegared ginger slices are refered to as sushoga ("vinegared ginger"), but at the sushi bar it is called gari. Wasabi is shortened to sabi and sometimes if it is really strong it is called namida ("tears").

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