Pairing Wine and Sake with Sushi
A note: this story originally appeared on SevenFifty Daily, an online magazine published by SevenFifty for professionals in the beverage industry.
When it comes to wine pairings, sushi can be tricky, with its savory, umami flavors and—at our restaurants—some fairly obscure ingredients. Add to that the challenge of selling sake, which many American consumers aren’t familiar with, and you have what can be a daunting task for somms, servers, and bartenders.
One thing that’s always at the front of my mind when I’m considering pairings is that, like most Japanese-inspired cuisine, our menus feature dishes composed with very delicate ingredients; therefore, I need to make sure that the wine doesn’t overwhelm or overshadow the food. One of the ways I do that is by leaning toward lower-alcohol wines, usually around 12 to 14 percent, with higher acidity. I love sourcing wines from regions like Wachau in Austria and Mosel in Germany, and cooler regions of France, as well as Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.
Another challenge is pairing wines with dishes that have a wide range of unfamiliar ingredients. Our chef and owner, Tyson Cole, is a wizard—he uses ingredients that could range from dehydrated sea urchin roe to hamachi to Thai chiles to foie gras. So it requires a lot of experiential pairings and trial and error. I spend a lot of time with the chefs, and I sit down with every dish, taste it with the wine, and find out what works. We do tastings every month, and it’s one of the most fun parts of my job.
In addition, we place a premium on staff education. All our servers and bartenders undergo a five- to six-week training program on just our beverage menus, and we reimburse staff for sommelier and cicerone certifications and offer them the chance to purchase wine at cost from us. That familiarity and comfort level really comes through to guests, who trust us to pick a wine or sake that perfectly complements their meal.
But it’s important to note that sales are never the focus: It’s all about helping our guests enjoy an unforgettable dining experience—and perhaps introducing them to something new and amazing. Here are five bottles from our Uchi Austin location that I sold last night. (The prices listed are what we charge at the restaurant.)
1. Otokoyama sake, Tokobetsu Junmai; $70, 720 mL
A lot of people think about sake being served hot and filtered, so this is a way to bridge that gap with a filtered, cold sake—which is especially great in Texas. It comes from Hokkaido, which is the most northern island in Japan. The sources of water there are really interesting. They tend to use snowmelt water in their fermentation. The result is a sake that comes across as clean, light, and very crisp and precise on the finish. It doesn’t have the bitterness that some soft-water sakes have. It’s always rising to the top of our sales mix. And “Otokoyama” means “man mountain,” so it has kind of this masculine association with it that customers really latch on to.
Take, for example, a couple that I was tending to last night. They were in their mid-to-late 20s and celebrating their anniversary. They wanted to make it special and had the budget for up to $100 for a bottle of wine. I asked them if they’d had sake before, and they said yes, but they weren’t really into it—they’d only had whatever cheap stuff was at the supermarket. I asked them if they trusted me, if they were willing to try this one out, and, after a conversation about what kind of wines they liked—they both preferred light, white, fruit-forward ones—I poured both of them a taste in a masu, which is the traditional wooden box it’s served in. As they took a sip, the guy was smiling and nodding, and the woman looked up at me and said, “It’s like drinking snow.” And they both loved its name.
2. Dewatsuru sake, Kimoto Junmai; $86, 720 mL
This sake is made in an interesting Kimoto style, which is a more traditional fermentation style that eschews adding lactic acid to speed up the fermentation process. It tends to be very savory and soft, with a full, lengthy finish. It also has more caramelized notes and more savory fruits like currants and plums. And it’s got a great story to go along with it. It’s from a town called Dewa that’s on the migratory path of a crane, which is Japan’s national bird and symbolizes longevity.
I sold this last night to a couple who come into the restaurant about twice a week. They’re always up for letting us take charge of their meal, but they usually stick to a fruitier sake. So when they ordered their usual, I said to them, “How about we try something new today?” which is something you can only say to longtime customers who trust you. I chose this one because it’s in their usual price range and, thanks to the Kimoto style of fermentation, it has a really different aroma because there’s no added lactic acid in the fermentation—it develops naturally, and as a result you’ll get some funky, earthy notes. So they smelled it, and it smelled like butter and soy sauce and yeasty baked bread, and they assumed the sake was bad. I smelled it myself, assured them it was fine, and told them to take a sip—and lo and behold, you get flavors of blossoming red fruits, strawberry, even ripe pineapple. It was really fun to see them discover how, with some sakes like this one, aroma and flavor are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
3. Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile Riesling; Alsace, France 2009; $155
Riesling is back in style again. No matter where you grow it, it has this naturally high level of acid, which makes it such a good wine for food—we’ve done entire multi-course dinners with nothing but Riesling! This wine is one of the purest expressions of meticulous winemaking and consistency of style. It’s one of those wines that knocks it out of the park at every vintage.
But the challenge sometimes is overcoming a stigma that I believe exists with expensive white wines, which is this tendency for people to see more value in an expensive red wine than an expensive white one. So when I sell this wine—and we sell multiple bottles every night—I like to talk to customers about its pedigree and how it’s made by a family in their 14th generation of winemaking. And I talk about the fact that the current release is a 2009 vintage, and all of a sudden this $155 price point seems like a really great value.
4. Jean-Claude Bessin Chablis, Premier Cru La Fourchaume Chardonnay; Burgundy, France 2015; $106
There was a time when Chablis was associated with this cheap, mass-produced California white wine. I was working behind the bar when a customer in his mid-to-late 50s, maybe early 60s—someone who would have been very familiar with that reputation—came in and asked for a bottle of Chablis. I brought this bottle out, and he said, “This isn’t Chablis—it’s not from California.” I showed him the label and told him to give it a try, even though I knew he was looking for something oaky, buttery, and full-bodied. It’s not a cheap bottle, and to eliminate any trepidation he had, I told him I’d open it and pour him a taste. He was so enamored and couldn’t believe that this was Chablis, and he just loved it.
This particular bottle is a single-vineyard, premier-cru Chablis done with fermentation in stainless steel, and it has this bracing, gripping acidity, with notes of tart white fruits. The way it interacts with food is so pleasant. It’s great to see that “aha” moment when you open up people’s minds of what a Chablis is.
5. Argyle Pinot Noir; Willamette Valley, Oregon 2015; $59
I’m a giant Pinot Noir fan. But it can also make me want to pull my hair out because all of the variation based on terroir, alcohol levels, and winemakers’ style make it one of the most confusing varieties on the planet. Argyle comes across as a fuller style because of its higher level of alcohol. But as with most Pinot Noirs, the color is almost transparent, so when they see the glass, some people will say, “This is much too light for me, it’s too light-bodied.” But it’s almost 15 percent alcohol! Argyle is a very food-friendly wine—its tannins are so soft and it has this velvety, almost felt-like finish. Pinot Noir is one of those varieties that does have a home on a sushi menu. Last night, I sold it as a pairing with mackerel. It goes so well because it has just enough fruit sweetness and a savory Old World character without any funky barnyard notes. It has this nice cleansing effect with any fish that has a really pronounced savory character to it.
—As told to Blane Bachelor
Dallas native Chris Melton is the beverage director for Hai Hospitality, a Texas-based restaurant group that oversees five Japanese-centric restaurants. He’s worked as a server, bartender, and beverage trainer, and is a certified sommelier and certified sake professional.