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East meets West at the dining table

It might seem unconventional, but wines can find great partners in Japanese food

by Felicity Hughes

Matching wine with Japanese food can be fraught with difficulty. A refined, oak-aged Bordeaux paired with a cool plate of sashimi, for example, can come across as brash and overbearing, completely drowning out the subtle spectrum of seafood flavors. But that’s not to say great matches are impossible. They do exist; but like all forms of cross-cultural communication, it helps if you’re flexible — both with your choice of wines and your seasoning.

This month, I take a look at how to best combine washoku (traditional-style Japanese food) and wine.

Wines that are designed to suit Japanese cuisine are almost nonexistent, but there is one winemaker who has made an effort to adapt his product for such dishes. In a phone conversation, Greg Brewer, owner and chief winemaker of California’s Diatom winery says, “I was raised with a heightened sensitivity toward a Japanese aesthetic. Transposing that cultural sensitivity to here is a driving force behind what I do.”

Brewer’s Chardonnays combine well with Japanese food partly because they haven’t been aged in oak barrels and partly because they have not undergone malolactic fermentation. This means that they do not have the powerful vanilla and buttery flavors of typical Californian Chardonnays.

“Because my approach is so streamlined, linear and edgy, it harmonizes better with Japanese food. Some of our wines might not work as well with food that has a lot of butter and cream-based things,” he says.

Brewer, of course, is a rare bird in California, where big Chardonnays are de rigueur, but dry Chardonnays are available in other parts of the world. Most notable are those bone-dry Chablis that are a classic match with oysters (though make sure you eat them raw and without seasoning).

If you are a fan of buttery Chardonnays, try pairing them with dishes that contain tofu — such as Okinawan champuru (a stir-fried dish usually with vegetables, tofu, egg and either meat or fish). The creaminess of the tofu goes great with the richness of this wine style. A golden sliver of uni (sea urchin) also possesses a surprising creaminess that works well with a fuller-flavored wine. Alternatively you can add a little butter to your soy sauce to fuse the gap between East and West. I’m a big fan of corn on the cob slathered in butter soy sauce — great for a barbecue with a cool glass of Australian Chardonnay.

Chardonnay is not the only white grape that has an affinity with some Japanese foods: a dry Riesling or fresh Sauvignon Blanc works well with white-fish sashimi. With red fish, such as tuna and salmon, their stronger flavors and fattiness would combine better with a sweeter Riesling or even a light, fruity red. Beaujolais or Pinot Noir would both work well here.

Sushi presents more of a challenge than sashimi, one of the main problems being that you’re dealing with many different flavors of fish at once.

“With every bite you should have a different wine. That’s the problem. Maguro (tuna) will go better with Pinot, white fish will go better with, let’s say, Chardonnay. Each time you eat you should pair. Sashimi is easier to match,” says Francois Dumas, who imports organic French wines to Japan through his company Le Vin Nature.

Another difficulty is the strength of the soy sauce, which doesn’t complement wine well. Either use it sparingly by investing in a basting brush and gently painting a thin layer on top, or take a leaf out of Dumas’ book: “If you want to eat sushi with red wine, make your own sauce of half soy sauce and half wine.” I tried it out the other day over dinner with friends and the consensus was, that if anything, doing this will water down the rather overbearing flavors of the soy sauce, so even if you accidentally dunk rather than gently dip, you won’t upset the balance of the meal.

It’s also important to be careful with the amounts of wasabi you add to your dish. Sommelier Sayuri Tezuka sounds a note of caution. “Real wasabi is much better. It has the spiciness and creaminess but it’s not too strong. Fake wasabi is difficult,” she says.

Because sushi is a rice dish, it has that fifth taste, umami, typically translated as “savory.” A classic pairing for umami is vintage Champagne, but if you don’t have any at hand, try a slightly aged white wine. There are many other umami-style Japanese dishes, and to them the same rule applies.

“Tempura with wine is amazing, it’s easy to match with a slightly oxidized wine. It goes very well. All the Japanese vegetables like gobo (burdock) work with a wine that’s a little oxidized. Oxidation for me is a little bit like umami,” says Dumas.

Although in general, whites work best with Japanese food, if you’re hooked on reds, then yakitori or grilled unagi (eel) make excellent pairings — especially if you’re eating them with a sweet-and-sour teriyaki sauce. But it’s still important here to show restraint; a tannic Bordeaux or a spicy Shiraz will overpower the flavors of the white meat. Try instead a Pinot Noir, Gamay or, if you can get your hands on one, a light French rose.

The more powerful your red wine is, the more difficult it is to match it with Japanese food. Because washoku is not so fatty, it’s hard to balance out strong tannins. But fans of richer wines take heart, there are some exceptions. My favorite is tenpanyaki wagyu (prime Japanese beef fried on a griddle), which is absolutely divine with a heavy-hitting blockbuster of a wine.

If beef doesn’t float your boat, try fatty pork braised in honey, garlic, soy and sugar sauce, or eel cooked in a thick sauce that contains a splash of wine (braised and boiled dishes, unlike grilled ones, retain enough fat to stand up to a more substantial wine). A note of warning here: Adding wine to a sauce will encourage a good match; however, using sake in sauces will destroy the balance, so leave the rice wine on the kitchen shelf when you plan to drink wine with your meal.

My final pairing is a little controversial. It’s wine with soba. Some people have told me it shouldn’t be done, because broth is hard to pair with wine, but I did find someone who’d enjoyed soba with red wine. Mayumi Eguchi, who goes by the pen name Yoppawriter, suggests trying Izutsu, a local wine blend from Nagano, to match the soba from the same prefecture.

“It matched the soba perfectly and was magnificent,” she recounts.

When it comes right down to it though, making a good match between Japanese food and wine is all a matter of personal taste. Dumas claims to enjoy natto (fermented soybeans) paired with wine because the strong flavors of the beans work in the same way blue cheese does. That’s just a bit too kinky for my taste. But it’s often the oddest couples that are the most entertaining, so don’t be afraid to mix things up.

Tasting notes: Choosing wines

Schloss Johannisberger Q.b.A. Riesling 2008 (¥4,032)

A slightly lemony scent combines with a fresh leafiness that would go well with a crunchy gobo (burdock) salad. The slight sweetness of this medium-dry Riesling comes out in faint apricot flavors that I found really lush with medium-fatty toro tuna.

www.pieroth.jp

J.L. Wolf, Riesling 2008 (¥2,940)

Honeysuckle and lilacs with a hint of minerality on the nose combine well with white-meat sashimi. You could also pair this with yakitori in a ponzu (citrus-based) sauce.

www.pieroth.jp

La Tosa, Colli Piacentini, Valnure 2008 (¥2,800)

If you can’t stretch to buying vintage Champagne, I found this sparkling wine had a wonderful nutty quality that combines well with umami (savory) flavors; try it with some mountain-vegetable tempura.

kkvinarius.com

Quattro per Uno, Plozner, 95 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 5 percent Viognier 2008 (¥4,000)

Granny Smith apple flavors are mellowed out by the Viognier, which adds faint aromatics and tones down the acidity of the Sauvignon. This one tastes sublime with a slab of katsuo (skipjack tuna) wrapped in a minty fresh shiso leaf.

kkvinarius.com

Domaine Christian Ducroux, Vin de Table “Patience” 2007 (¥2,800)

A fresh and fruity Beaujolais made with organically grown Gamay grapes. Pair it with red-meat sashimi or yakitori.

www.le-vin-nature.net

Diatom, Huber, Santa Rita Hills, Chardonnay 2008 (¥7,875)

A steely Chardonnay from Greg Brewer, which online wine store Iwine says has delicate aromas of gardenia and honeysuckle and flavors of agave and dried seaweed that make it a great match for sashimi.

www.iwine.jp/

Littorai, Sonoma Coast, Pinot Noir 2008 (¥7,245)

Great for yakitori or grilled unagi (eel), this Pinot is nice and spicy and has a powerful aroma of wet bark that makes it combine well with charcoal-grilled meat. This one needs a few years to reach its full potential.

www.iwine.jp/