Sashimi and Wine, think light and delicate.

by Heidi Chan

I've seen so many people drowning a sashimi into soy sauce, not quite the usual Japanese way of enjoying a nice piece of sashimi. This makes me ponder whether there're supposed to be certain niceties and etiquettes in Japanese dining that must be observed. I think many of us seemed to forget there is a place for grape wine at the table. This happens way too often that a sake or a carbonated cold beer make convenient choices in the drink list. For those who feel a bit adventurous, the limited indifferent selection of beverage at some typical Japanese cuisine outlets could be discouraging.

While there're some many good takeout sources in town, many people might be eating sushi and sashimi at home more than in restaurants, we now have more options than ever before when it comes to the Japanese food and wine serving, which is great! 

The basic rules are fairly simple, look for wines to enhance, complement, or set off the natural qualities of the dish: young wines and not too high in alcohol. I think white wines on the lighter end in general works well with sashimi because they are both very delicate, especially in flavour the white wines with zippy taste and with moderate acidity and soft fruity aromas, even the young, elegant red wines can do the job sometimes.  I've slightly become obsessed with Champagne Rose (France), which pairs so well with tuna. It is juicy, refreshing enough not to over-do the raw fish, making it ideal for raw fish with relatively high oil and fat content. The citrusy grapefruit aftertaste is well versed with the bitterness of tuna fish, especially Toro (fatty underbelly of tuna). The wine adds an extra mildly bitter element that plays with the super soft meat. The higher acidity level scrubs the fish oil right off your tongue and turns to a rounded palate and expansive silky to the finish. And it works well with the soy sauce that usually comes with it when being served.

Try Champagne Rosé (France) and Tai sashimi. It does a great job enhancing the natural sweetness of a Japanese Tai (red sea bream) that is of mild, subtle flavour. Plenty of red fruit, this dry Rosé has 10% Pinot Noir in the blend contributing to a rounder impression of the wines which corresponds to the finesse and elegance of this lean white fleshed fish.  A pleasant chewy bite and I figure it has a very sweet lasting aftertaste.

Then I wouldn't turn down a Cava (Spain). It's surprisingly versatile in its tastes and its pairing abilities that makes it possible to go with any kind of sushi and sashimi toppings (skipped the rolls for this time) that is rich in protein and has good fat. The Cava we tried is a Brut Reserva (12% abv), still very fruit forward with moderate acidity enough to cut the excessive richness in some fish, pairs well with sliced squid, tentacles (octopus), scallops that are served raw. The softness in wine gained through bottle ageing balances perfectly the tangy vinegar of the sushi rice. 

With things like shellfish I like to have something like a Sparkling Weissburgunder (aka Pinot Blanc) from Austria. I have really enjoyed this varietal with shellfish, its discreet fruit resonates so well with the slight saltiness and the vibrant acidity is nice complement to the mild taste of the shellfish meat. An Alsatian version should work well enough with chunks such as halibut, mackerel, etc.

When this is not available, grab a bone dry Riesling. Just need to be a little careful not to pick a wine that has an astute acidity that will bring out the strong fishy flavour of varieties such as crab roe and salmon roe. 

Grüner Veltliner (Lichtenstein) A well made medium-bodied peppery dry white that is barrel matured. Unfortunately the slight woodiness didn't help to bring out the best in sashimi but rather obstruct the finesse of the raw fish dishes, also making the quality in a reserved wine no longer discernable. Perhaps a tempura battered dish would be a better texture pairing.

There are some other wines we did not try but thought could be a good fit:  White Burgundy or New World Chardonnay: Salmon; Salty seeming coastal White: sea urchin.