What to drink with Japanese food

Food with a Japanese accent has become increasingly popular. How well does wine go with it? A version of this article, a follow up to Richard's recent musings on food and wine matching, is published by the Financial Times. 

Wine may not be the most obvious partner for Japanese food but a few days spent in Japan recently in the company of Japanese experts in wine and food pairing convinced me that it could work very well. Even if the detail of the ideal pairings is, perhaps predictably, as intricate as the presentation of the dishes.

Kenichi Ohashi is Japan’s first Japanese resident Master of Wine, passing the notoriously stiff exams in 2015. He is also a Master of Sake. Motohiro Okoshi is one of Japan’s most respected sommeliers and owner of a Vietnamese-accented, wine-focused restaurant An Di. Together they are responsible for wine selection on JAL, and are regularly hired to consult on food and wine matching in Japan.

I quizzed them on the theory of matching wine to Japanese food and, over a series of meals in the principal Japanese culinary idioms, for which they had chosen the wine, I had a chance to test it out in practice. I also took advice from British-born, New Zealand-raised Carl Robinson, who has worked in wine in Japan for more than 20 years.

The most popular Japanese foods outside Japan are surely sushi and sashimi, albeit often bought in takeaways where wine is far from a factor. But with good-quality sushi and sashimi served with care, white wine is the usual choice, and both champagne and sake frequent ones. We ate a multi-course dinner at the tiny Fujimori sushi restaurant in Tokyo’s Minato district for which Ken had chosen particularly outré 2007 champagne, a single-vineyard example of Yamanashi prefecture’s own grape Koshu, Eben Sadie’s stunning Spioenkop blend of Swartland grapes, and fellow Master of Wine Richard Kershaw’s refined Chardonnay, also from South Africa.

All of them were very flattering to and flattered by the food – unlike most oaked Chardonnays, particularly white burgundies, that can be a bit too heavy for Japanese food. Ken in particular is a big fan of the lean dry white Australian speciality, Hunter Valley Semillon, especially a well-aged example (they do age unusually well) ‘with a touch of rock salt on the raw fish to give a similarly savoury note’.

He insists that whether the sushi master uses salt or soy can dictate wine choices, as can the quality and provenance of the vinegar. Pointing out that Fujimori uses pale lemon rice vinegar for its white rice so that strong savoury notes in the wine are not essential, he insisted that 'Reddish rice is flavoured with red vinegar, which is made from sake lees. The red vinegar contains much more amino acid and organic acids than general rice vinegar, and it gives the rice further complexity. So I would suggest very savoury red wines such as mature rioja, etc.'

Tannic (chewy, young) wines are out, apparently, as they clash with sushi and sashimi, but softer reds can work if the sashimi is heavily dipped in soy sauce as Ken claims we westerners do, while Japanese tend to dip more fleetingly.

Soy is salty and savoury and can go well with savoury soft reds of which Ken’s favourite is an aged Nerello Mascalese from the slopes of Etna. Another of his favourite raw fish accompaniments is the crunchy Austrian red wine grape Blaufränkisch. I must confess I am usually sceptical of or impatient with such prescriptive exactitude in pairing food and wine, but the extent to which Ken and Moto earnestly discussed their experiences I found quite convincing.

They assured me that Pinot Noir can work with some sushi and sashimi but doesn’t sit happily on the palate with soy sauce, while Sancerre can be as beneficial as a squeeze of yuzu or lemon on raw fish. Champagne, especially Blanc de Blancs, is excellent because it counteracts aggressively fishy flavours. And the Japanese Koshu grape works well because the grape’s thick skins make the wines lightly but not excessively chewy – and, like raw white fish, its wines have a level of zen neutrality.

For Carl Robinson, champagne is the most obvious accompaniment for sushi and sashimi, although he volunteered that Vin Jaune can work well too. He also pointed out that rosé wines in general are increasingly valued for their ability to work well with Japanese cuisine.

Ken’s favourite Japanese cuisine is tempura, the range of crisply deep-fried goods that the Japanese are so good at. Here again, the precise ingredients can determine the wine choice. The frying oil most commonly used in Japanese tempura restaurants is apparently a light vegetable oil based on cottonseed, but if a lot of the heavier sesame oil is used, then a heavy white such as a typical California Chardonnay is recommended. Lighter Chardonnays from Burgundy or Australia are what Ken and Moto suggest for vegetable-oil-based tempura. Sancerre and Grüner Veltliner work really well; Riesling doesn’t. When Moto and Ken were asked to advise a top tempura restaurant in Nagoya recently, they found a Bründlmayer Grüner worked really well, as did, amazingly, an ‘orange’ (white wine made like a red in contact with grape skins) Koshu, but a seriously chewy white aged in a Georgian kvevri clay pot was less successful. Another very specific star performer was apparently Contino’s white rioja, so perhaps other wines based on Viura/Macabeo grapes would work as well.

I should add that on our British Airways flights between London and Tokyo, the Schloss Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner 2018 Kamptal went particularly well with the not-bad-at-all Japanese set menus offered on board. This seemed to be a step up from the situation I described in Wine in the air in February.

For the sea eel macerated in sweet soy sauce that is the usual final dish in a serious tempura restaurant, a soft, sweetish, characterful red is recommended – a lighter southern Rhône without too much tannin but with a hint of herby garrigue scent perhaps, or a long-aged Rioja Gran Reserva. (I used to complain that the range of wine available in Japan was a bit narrow. Not any more.)

Soba noodle restaurants serving the thin grey noodles hot or cold are popular in Japan. Sake and beer are the usual accompaniments but I was assured that the cooler ones (fashion not serving temperature) are offering interesting wine selections now. Reds tend to be too strong but spicy rosés work well. Moto votes for a very savoury, light natural red with cold soba noodles in stock with soy sauce because there is lots of glutamic acid and savouriness. Hot soba noodles tend to overwhelm wine flavours on the other hand, so Japanese spirits or hot sake are recommended.

Yakitori, various different bits of chicken on bamboo skewers, are particularly popular in Japan and may be dominated by saltiness, sweetness and/or grilled smoky flavours. I should have guessed that Ken in his wine recommendations would distinguish between free range and battery-reared chickens. With the former, the texture of the chicken meat is much chewier so he chooses a fairly soft red, a lightweight Syrah or Pinot Noir. 'If the soy element is strong, I usually try a white wine first, but the malolactic character in white burgundy can be too distracting, while a non-malo white can taste sour. Australian Chardonnay is very good. A grassy Sauvignon can add refreshment, and a Greek Assyrtiko works very well. You need a touch of tightness on palate – a northern (not southern) Italian white perhaps, such as a Gavi. Then if there’s garlic, Godello [the superb Galician white wine grape] is perfect.’ He later suggests that Godello is also very good with sardines and tiny shrimp.

The traditional, varied, multi-course Japanese Kaiseki meal can be a real challenge. Ken and Moto suggest something as versatile as champagne that will be refreshing throughout, and preferably ‘a little bit aged’ to provide that savoury character again. ‘I strongly believe that acidity is needed, so a hot-climate wine is out’, declares Ken. The nine wines he and Moto chose for our tiptop Kaiseki dinner in Osaka included an English sparkling wine, a light Etna red, an Israeli white and an old-vine Chilean light red.

We agree that we find the ultra-fatty Wagyu beef just a bit too much for our personal taste, but because of all that fat, whites can work surprisingly well, provided they have a bit of weight as well as fresh, lemony acidity to fight the fattiness. Suitable candidates include Assyrtiko (again), dry Furmint from Hungary and a Swartland Chenin Blanc from South Africa (all wines Ken will have had to have been familiar with for this Master of Wine exams). He allows that most Japanese will choose a red – perhaps a Rhône or Hawke's Bay NZ Syrah for its pepperiness – but ‘my style is white’.

As my brain scrolled through the various sorts of Japanese food that we in the west encounter, I mentioned Nobu restaurants and their famous blackened cod. ‘With grilled fish, the salt is Japanese but Nobu adds sweetness.’ For Ken this is fusion food, a bridge between Japan and America, for which dry Riesling is particularly suitable. I remembered the last time I had lunch with Nobu co-founder, restaurateur Drew Nieporent, at the newest branch in New York. I was glad I had suggested Drew try, for apparently the first time, the dry Riesling on the list.

As for wine with Japan’s ramen noodles, Ken just sighed deeply and said, ‘difficult, very difficult’.

SOME RECOMMENDED JAPANESE WINES

Global warming is changing the extent of vine growing in Japan as much as everywhere else. The northernmost island of Hokkaido is increasingly being invaded by the vine, with land prices rising accordingly. Étienne de Montille of Burgundy is one of many new growers there. And natural wine, made with minimal additions, is particularly popular in Japan.

These are the Japanese wines I enjoyed during my recent visit.

WHITES

Chateau Mercian, Iwade Koshu, Cuvée Ueno 2017 Yamanashi

10R Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Hokkaido

Nora Chardonnay 2016 Hokkaido

10R Kerner 2013 Hokkaido

REDS

Cappuccetto Lambrusco 2016 Nagoya

Nora Rouge (Pinot Noir with Merlot) 2017 Hokkaido

10R Pinot Noir 2014 Hokkaido

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