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I know, I know, it’s taken me forever to get this up!  Hopefully, this conclusion to my exploration of the sushi and wine experience makes up for trying your patience.  I promised charts.  I promised science.  I promised that you’d be able to comfortably pick out what wine you want for the experience you want when having sushi.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I deliver all of those things in this riveting end point to your wine and sushi voyage.  For the very impatient (aka lazy bums, slackers, non-geeks), please scroll to the chart at the bottom to get the answers without having to learn.

Where We Left Off…

In Part 1, we did a review of the existing “literature”.  By that, I mean we Googled the heck out of pairing wine with sushi and came up with a whole lot of nothing useable.  Preferences were listed aplenty, but no guides existed to help you in the sushi restaurant.

In Part 2, we reviewed the components of wine and sushi and laid out some plausible theories as to what kinds of interactions could go down when mixing and matching.  Here I brought in the insight of Tim Hanni, MW to get his take on what actually happens when wine and food are mixed in our noses, our mouths and our brains.  We also discussed some of the existing claims out there and Tim happily took down a lot of the nonsense that has been floating around.  At the conclusion I delivered 4 specific interactions that really affect the sushi and wine experience.  To repeat and save you the trouble of clicking the link and having to read:

  • When a flavor component of the food is similar to that in the wine, the experience of that flavor is enhanced.  This is called flavor matching.
  • The perception of alcohol will increase when paired with sweet, umami-tasting or spicy foods.
  • The perception of spiciness will decrease when paired to a wine with more acidity.
  • Tannins will noticeably diminish when they encounter salt (soy sauce), citric acid (lemon juice) or vinegar (pickled ginger).

 Some More Science

In doing some more research on flavor components, I came across a fascinating article in Nature entitled Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairing.  When you mix wine with food, it’s really an extension of the existing ingredients that are already in the dish. We have our preferences as to which herbs and spices work in which dishes, so we should have our preferences as to which wines work with which dishes too.  In the article they broke down all of the components of food down to the compound level.  You see, it’s the combination of certain compounds that we interpret as flavor and aroma.  Then they ran through various recipe sites on-line and compared which components always showed up together and which ones did not.  The most interesting outcome of this study was that they found in Western cooking, we generally like to put together ingredients that share compounds.  In Eastern cooking, we generally like to put together ingredients that do not share compounds.  Now think back to the first interaction I listed.  If two items match up on flavor/aroma compounds, then that flavor/aroma will be enhanced.  If two items don’t match up on the compounds, then nothing is really enhanced, but things are made a bit more complex.  Trouble wrapping your head around that one?  Thankfully, the authors of the paper came up with an excellent chart to show which ingredients share components (closer together) and which ones have differing components (farther away).  Definitely click on it to get the larger view.  

To associate this with our sushi and wine pairing, this means that if we have a wine that shares a lot of compounds with the components in the sushi, we are going to get an enhancement of that particular flavor or aroma.  The wines that do this are going to typically be whites since they carry a lot of the green, tropical fruit, floral, and minerally components.  If we have a wine that diverges from the compounds of the sushi components, we are going get a more complex sensation of taste.  This will happen with the vast majority of reds with their more earthy, red fruit, and black fruit components.  I generally like to think of this concept in terms of sound waves because they do the same thing.  A sound wave is enhanced if the same wave gets overlaid on to it and the sound wave is neutralized if the exact opposite wave is laid on top of it.  [As a side note, the latter method is essentially how noise cancellation works.] [As a side note to the side note, I think the idea of creating flavor or aroma component “chords” is something very real and needs to be explored]  Therefore, the first decision you have to make is whether you want an enhancement of certain components with your wine and sushi pairing or if you want to add complexity to your experience.  Posting the common aroma descriptors of each varietal would make this post a bit lengthy, so I’ve simplified the concept in the chart at the end.

The second decision you have to make is how much of a wasabi kick you are looking to get.  If you’re eating sushi the “proper” way, you should only have a tiny dab with your bite (if any at all), but some people have been known to take a chunk just to get that brain burn feeling.  Again, a reminder that the wasabi you are having is really horseradish, mustard and food coloring and not actual wasabi, but the effect is generally the same.  One way to control the amount of kick is to simply control the amount of wasabi you are ingesting at a time.  However, one can neutralize some of the effects of the spiciness by taking a swig of wine that has some noticeable acid in it.  This is nice for those who are not so daring to swallow a chunk of wasabi outright, but might enjoy the pepperiness that it brings.  The exact proportions will differ by person, but it’s certain that if you take a lot of wasabi in at once, no amount of acid will diffuse that shooting burn you’ll get through your brain.  It’s the in between area that there is room to play.  On the flip side of that, if you have a wine with more pronounced alcohol content, that kick may be heightened depending on your level of sensitivity.  The more tolerant taster who doesn’t noticed higher alcohol content in wines as much (as a burning sensation in the back of your throat near the nasal cavity) may be more tolerant of spicy foods to begin with.  The more sensitive taster should take note though.  For those who like to live on the edge, take something 100 proof alongside a big chunk of wasabi.  I’m sure it will be a trip you won’t forget.  If anyone wants to create a shot based on that, all I ask is that you send a small portion of the revenue from all of your “I survived….” merchandise my way.

Last, we consider the tannin factor.  That cotton feeling you get wrapping around your tongue generally with red wines.  This was a big point of contention on the internet as the red wine purists couldn’t understand why their tannins had disappeared and the rest of the people didn’t want them there in the first place.  But are we just restricted to white wines or red wines sans tannins when eating sushi? No! You can have the wine you want with the experience you want, but you may need to take steps to get it that way.  Let’s remember that the sensation of tannin decreases significantly when you add in citric acid, vinegar or salt.  We can get citric acid from a lemon slice, vinegar from pickled ginger and salt from soy sauce while we’re eating sushi.  Use these as your tools.  You want all the tannin goodness your favorite wine can provide?  Stay away from dunking your bite of sushi into soy sauce; forgo the slice of pickled ginger in between bites.  Your tannins will be there every step of the way.  What’s that? You inconsiderately ordered a bottle of tannic red wine without asking the people you are with what they want and they don’t want any tannin at all?  Well they’ll be resigned to getting a bit more soy sauce on each bite than they’re used to; having a slice of pickled ginger in between bites; or maybe just squeezing a bit of lemon over everything.  The moderates can find their ideal balance somewhere in between with a little trial and error using the tools available.

Now, I wouldn’t have gone through all this work without trying these theories out on unknowing participants.  That’s not my style.  An event was put together with 15 people to verify the effects of these interactions with 4 different wines and an assorted collection of sushi.  Was it scientific? Not remotely.  Did it successfully verify that people who just like wine and also like sushi can use this information to identify what wines they like best with sushi? Absolutely. We used all of the common ingredients found in sushi restaurants in Minneapolis and tasted four wines throughout the night: Grüner Veltliner, Viognier, Carmenere, Shiraz.  Keeping in mind that the impression my internet searching left me with was that people shied away from reds when eating sushi, it was a fun surprise to discover that with the tools I had given the group, the overall favorite pairing was the Shiraz.

The key, as with just about everything, is balance.  More importantly, it’s knowing what you are balancing.  Three questions need to be asked when you sit down to sushi and you’re deciding what wine you want.

  1. How much wasabi kick do I want?
  2. How much tannin do I want to be noticeable?
  3. Do I want flavor enhancement or flavor complexity?

Charts!

Add acid to manage excessive wasabi kick

Alcohol will increase the wasabi kick moderately

Finally, here is the chart that was given to the willing subjects.  The wines listed are all of those available at the various sushi restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Notice how it guides you toward achieving balance through trade offs.  Happy pairing!

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In my Sushi and Wine Part 1 post, I did a survey of the existing help a person may find browsing the internet on pairing wine with sushi.  The results were not good.  It turned out that given the number of conflicting views that existed, people should just give up and drink sake (or a gin martini!) instead of attempting to drink wine with their sushi.  While disheartening for wine lovers who also eat sushi, I would not be deterred.  Sushi, after all is just food and there is a science behind how wine interacts with food.  Let’s break it down!

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Basic food components of (Americanized) sushi: raw fish (tuna, salmon, snapper, etc.), rice prepared with rice vinegar and sugar, soy sauce, pickled ginger and wasabi (although a lot of times it’s just a colored horseradish and mustard mixture).

Additional food components in rolls: carrots, cucumbers, mango, sprouts, mayonnaise (sometimes “spicy”), cream cheese, crab (fake or not), nori (the seaweed wrap) and tempura (batter of mostly wheat flour that things can be fried in).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is pretty comprehensive if you consider the vast majority of sushi consumed here in America.  One thing to notice here is that even though sushi and wine pairing is kind of an unsettled thing, the taste components of sushi don’t differ from any other foods.  You still perceive the primary tastes* sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami from sushi, just as you would any other meal.  Theoretically then, sushi shouldn’t be treated any differently than if you were considering a wine for another type of meal.  So where is the disconnect?  Does the dunking of the sushi into a vat of soy sauce (umami and saltiness) really “kill” a wine.

In researching how sushi and wine can interact with each other, I decided I needed to know a little bit more about the science of taste.  The journey ended up leading me to the one and only, Tim Hanni, MW.  Tim is known, amongst other things, for two firsts: Being one of the first two resident Americans to receive a Master of Wine title and for being the first to introduce the flavor component, umami into the wine and food community lexicon.  The latter has given him the tongue-in-cheek (almost literally) title as The Swami of Umami.  Visit his website through the link for a whole host of interesting materials.

“There are actual differences in how people experience some sensations. It’s not that one person has a better or worse palate than another.”  Tim stated, referring to the idea in the wine world that one has to “mature” their palate to truly appreciate the best wine and food pairings.  In his teachings, we all fall somewhere on a scale of how sensitive a taster we are.  The highly sensitive tasters can notice interactions to a high degree while a more tolerant taster might not even notice it at all.  An example he gives is experiencing a wine with a high alcohol level.  A more sensitive taster will experience almost a burning sensation which can be heightened if paired with a sweet or umami-laden food.  The tolerant taster, on the other hand could find the sensation to be almost sweet instead of a burn and not mind the food/wine combination at all.

More specifically, about sushi, I asked him about the claim that soy sauce “kills” wine.  “I hate that. Most people don’t actually pay attention to what is happening in their mouth and the ones who should (writers, bloggers, “experts”) often pay the least attention – they write about wine and food interactions that they have never taken the time to isolate and experience. Do you have a bottle of red open yet today?”  I didn’t.  I’d just gotten done with a 3-hour bike ride and was still in full gear, sans helmet.  “Ok, well I have this bottle of red here that I’ve been working on today and…it’s ok, it’s not that good.”  Tim is very much a hands-on kind of educator. “And I have a little bit of this soy sauce…then the wine…and this wine actually tastes better with the soy sauce.”  So no, wine isn’t “killed” by soy sauce.  What does happen, is that the perception of tannin in the red wine noticeably diminishes due to the salt in the soy sauce.  Therefore, someone expecting the astringency (and also considering the presence of those tannins the mark of what the wine should taste like in the case of many wine professionals) might consider it a bad pairing while someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy that sort of cottony-feeling in their mouth might consider it a good pairing.  Tim, had just answered the question as to why there was no consensus in the on-line world as to what wines were good with sushi and what wines were not.  It’s all about perception.

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Therefore, pairing wine and sushi (or to any dish really) is not so much about finding the perfect wine that everyone agrees on, but discussing the sensations that are possible and letting someone figure out which ones they like. The experience of flavor matching, on the other hand; the concept of hooking up a similar aroma or flavor from a wine to one that is found in the food, will probably be consistent across the board, but one would need to decide if they want to up-play or down-play that flavor.

Now for the theoretical part.  Through my research so far, I’ve come up with 4 interactions that generally make up and affect the wine and sushi experience.  Just 4, you say? Yes! Just 4!  These 4 guidelines will assist people in choosing the wine and sushi pairings that work for them.  If you’d like, you can play around with these interactions as you eagerly await the exciting conclusion of my sushi and wine research.  Part 3 will involve experiments, charts, more science and as promised, a guide to show you what to order at your favorite sushi restaurant based on what kind of experience you want to have.

The 4:

  • When a flavor component of the food is similar to that in the wine, the experience of that flavor is enhanced.  This is called flavor matching.
  • The perception of alcohol will increase when paired with sweet, umami-tasting or spicy foods.
  • The perception of spiciness will decrease when paired to a wine with more acidity.
  • Tannins will noticeably diminish when they encounter salt (soy sauce), citric acid (lemon juice) or vinegar (pickled ginger).

*More and more research is showing that taste takes on a hierarchical form with the primary tastes on top and their variations underneath.  At least 5 different types of bitterness have already been sussed out and there is little doubt that more will be found including sub-types to those sub-types and perhaps more tastes than the 5 general tastes already labeled!

Read on to the exciting finale: Sushi and Wine Part 3!

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I was recently at a sushi restaurant in Chicago satisfying a seafood craving and I struck up a conversation with the owner who was tending the bar about her wine list.  It was a standard wine list, that is to say it had an equal number of reds and whites all reasonably priced and nothing too interesting.  As I sipped my dry, gin martini I inquired what wines were her big sellers.  She rattled off some of the whites which was no surprise, but then also listed some of the reds which given the reds that they were made me more disappointed than surprised.  Finally, after I reaffirmed my conclusion that people generally have no idea what wine to pair with sushi, she thew in her words of wisdom: “Drink Saké!”  Since this was followed by a free saké tasting, I wasn’t one to object.  But that conversation got the gears turning again about pairing wine with sushi.

Pairing wine and sushi can be a difficult thing.  Not because it is impossible, but because there is a lack of information.  When searching for a good wine pairing to go with just about any other type of meal, the internet is our friend.  What wine would go with this pasta dish I’m having? Google it and gather a consensus.  What meal would go with this wine I just picked up.  Google it and gather a consensus.  Yet, when it comes to pairing wine with raw fish, rice, soy sauce and wasabi, the internet, whom we thought our friend, leaves us hanging in our time of need.

Since there is a lack of information, I will be adding some data into the ether-sphere through this captivating mini-series.  This first part will summarize all of the existing knowledge on pairing wine and sushi that exists on the internet today.  The next part will get into how the food components should match or should not match the wine components and I’ll probably round the whole thing off with a good trial of pairings to verify what works and what does not.

To narrow my focus, which no one else has appeared to do, I’ll be sticking to the items and terminology that are common in a sushi restaurant found in the USA: Sashimi (Just the fish), Nigiri (Fish, rice, dab of wasabi) and those gigantic rolls that you might choke on when you put the whole thing in your mouth in one bite.  I’ll also include the condiments: wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger.  This is to say, I’ll be focusing on Americanized “sushi”, because let’s face it, that’s what most of us have access to and are likely to eat.

The Summary

If you were to Google “sushi wine pairings”, it might as well just return two words: Good luck. Of the little information that exists, it is mostly contradictory, based entirely on preference or not applicable to the kind of sushi restaurant you’d be eating in or that restaurant’s wine list. I won’t link to any of the articles, because all of them were vague, confusing and rarely did they actually have a conclusion.  But the general consensus is this:

  • Stick with white wines
  • Grüner Veltliner is the new kid on the block that people are raving about
  • Soy sauce destroys wine
  • Bubbly is kind of fun
  • Drink beer or saké instead
Mostly people just rehashed some form of the above “advice”, but there were a few trailblazers out there on the fringe:
  • Certain reds are great pairings if you have a tasting set up where the chef and the guy putting the tasting on specifically try to match the pairing up and come up with something that can’t be found in a standard Americanized sushi restaurant
  • Old Bordeaux is the best pairing (because all of us have some of that laying around!) per a sushi chef
  • The wine should have a touch of sweetness to it
  • Oaky Chardonnay should not be considered
  • Oaky Chardonnay should definitely be considered
My favorites [sic] were the ones that threw caution to the wind and just decided to pair the sushi with whatever wine they liked and call it a day.  The standard wine rags were non-commital at best and what was really surprising was that not even the experts would state why things did or did not work (and don’t you want to know why?).  There was debate about judiciously dabbing your soy sauce or giving your sushi a good dunking in it, a certain amount of ruckus over umami and a curiously awed stance over what kind of spiciness wasabi really is. Most of all, what floored me was that there was rarely any mention of the wine enhancing the meal as it should.  Reviews were neutral at best if any final conclusion was reached at all.

Generally with wine and food pairings you can always look to what is traditionally served together: “What grows together, goes together.”  But mid-Pacfic coast Asia doesn’t have a long tradition of grapevine growing and winemaking…so that’s out.  I’d contend that pairing wine with sushi is a new thing in the sense that it doesn’t have a long history of trial and error.  Therefore, the current lack of information on the subject is certainly forgivable.  One thing to note here is that concerning sushi, we are not pairing food with wines that are crafted to be a part of this meal.  This isn’t an impossible task as it has been done numerous times before, but it is difficult when introducing food components that don’t exist in other wine-friendly cuisines.  The intent from here on out is to analyze what makes up the sushi meal and what wine components work best (if any) in a way that will enhance the sushi experience.

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