The Best Wine to Pair with Sushi!
The Best Wine to Pair with Sushi!

The most popular pairings with quality sushi? Most people would mention wasabi or maybe fresh ginger, while others might insist that no sushi is complete without soy sauce or even a nice hot cup of freshly brewed green tea. But what if we told you that you could take your next sushi meal up a notch with a wine pairing?

Wine pairings may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to selecting sushi, but a proper wine may just lead you to your most fantastic sushi dining experience yet.

And that’s evidenced in sushi restaurants like Hokkaido in Charleston, South Carolina which opened its doors in May. Open for lunch and dinner, Hokkaido features specialty appetizers like miso and seafood soup, seaweed salad and Japanese spring rolls; classics like pineapple fried rice, and, of course, an array of sushi and tempura options.

While they may be known for their spicy tuna roll and tuna avocado roll, they also just so happen to serve wine–a great way to elevate the already fresh options.

This isn’t the first time sushi and wine have coupled, far from it–you can find sushi and wine pairings at wine and food festivals, like this one featuring over one hundred vendors, local food trucks, and even gastronomic cooking for a few days this June in New York. You’ll also find wine paired with sushi in many of Baltimore’s best sushi restaurants.

But what wine pairings are best with sushi? And would you really want to have wine with your sushi anyway?
In this article, we’ll delve into what wine to order with what kinds of sushi, so that even if you’ve never had sushi before you can find the best wine pairing possible.

I’ve heard about beer and sushi pairings. Why would I drink wine with sushi instead?

Whether you have beer or wine with your sushi is a matter of preference, but wine actually has far more options than beer does when it comes to different varieties that pair well with sushi.

Most experts suggest, for beer pairings, a lager or other light beers. Since beer tends to feel and taste a bit heavier than some wines and is also starchier, your options are naturally a bit more limited.

Another alternative to wine pairings with sushi is Sake. Sake is actually made from rice, so many shy away from pairing the drink with sushi, but it can be paired with sashimi. Sake, however, even more so than wine, tends to be a rather divisive and “acquired taste’, and while the Japanese choice of drink does contain about the same alcohol content of wine, sake tends to be less crisp and acid and wine, and is instead prized for its texture.

If you aren’t a big wine or beer fan–or if you’re looking to emphasize fresher, bright notes in your sushi, wine pairings might be more suited for you. While sashimi pairs with sake, sushi, and sake together can feel too heavy, and anything other than a light beer can overwhelm sushi’s natural flavors.

I know about wine pairings with fish. Why are the best pairings with sushi any different?

While fish does play a factor in the overall profile of sushi, it does not encompass the complex texture and flavors, not cover the array of different varieties of sushi. With sushi and wine pairings, we have to consider everything, which includes not only a variety of seafood but also rice, vegetables, and seaweed.

Overall, sushi’s profile is far more salty and diverse in flavors and textures than fish, so while some of the wine pairings with fish may partially overlap, they cannot address sushi as a whole.

Do you have any general tips for wine pairings?

Wine pairings are meant to complement or enhance certain flavors within a dish. What you decide to enhance is up to you, but typically the key is to find a wine that complements without overwhelming or too directly fighting the dish.

What’s trickier is that it isn’t all about a food category, either. Here are some lesser known things you’ll need to think about:

  • how the food has been prepared
  • condiments or sides served alongside dishes
  • your personal flavor preferences
  • a willingness to try wines you might not naturally gravitate towards
  • complement–but the flavors shouldn’t be so similar they fade
  • equal strength–if you opt for sushi with a strong sauce or stronger tasting fish, you’ll need a bolder wine

Why does the kind of sushi I order matter?

The variety of sushi or sashimi you order matters when it comes to the best wine pairings because the overall flavor and texture profiles will affect what wine best compliments your dish. Something as simple as ordering a California roll versus something like nigiri can make a difference in what wine will be the best option.

Because the type of sushi you order make a difference as to what wine you should select, let’s go over some common sushi varieties:

  • Maki: This type of sushi may have a less familiar name, but it’s actually what most people think of first when they think of sushi. Maki is rice and filling wrapped with a seawood around the outside. This kind of sushi has the most layered flavors, no matter what fillings you order, because it combines filling (often some kind of fish and even vegetables) with rice and the distinct seaweed taste.
  • Uramaki: As the name implies, uramaki has a strong relationship to maki; the only difference is that the rice is on the exterior and the seaweed wrap is nestled inside against the filling, thus it has the same basic profile of maki when it comes to textures and flavors.
  • Sashimi: Sashimi is simply sushi grade seafood served without sushi rice, thus sashimi will be both less starchy and less salty than maki and uramaki (though it is often served with soy sauce).
  • Nigiri: Nirgi, also known as a rice ball, is a form of sushi that is mostly rice: a mound of rice, usually cone-shaped, is steamed, coated with wasabi and topped with a bit of sushi-grade seafood. This is the most starchy and least salty of the sushi options.

What kinds of fillings are common for sushi?

Perhaps even more important than the form of sushi are the fillings you’ll select. The fillings will be the central flavors you’re trying to complement or enhance with your wine pairings. The best wine pairings will first and foremost enhance and complement flavors of the filling but also balance out the rice and seaweed.

When we talk about sushi fillings, most of us think about the typical (uramaki) sushi rolls. Both uramaki and make sushi rolls may have some of these ingredients. For Nigiri and sashimi, you’ll mostly get some form of seafood.

Typical seafood in sushi rolls includes, but is not limited to: ahi tuna, shrimp, eel, clam, squid, crab meat, clams, scallops, roe, and fish (including, but not limited to salmon, bluefin, red snapper, and trout).

The most popular sushi rolls include:

    • Surf and Turf: cucumber, fish cakes or imitation crab, beef, carrot, tuna, salmon and avocado. These feel combine heavier meaty textures and flavors with cooler elements, but it’s one of the heaviest feeling sushi rolls due to the addition of meat.
    • Vegetable Roll: This one is notable in that it’s vegetarian and does not have the salt or texture profile of most sushi though it does of course still have a seaweed wrap. Cucumber, carrots, scallions, avocado, asparagus and sometimes cream cheese are included.
    • Caterpillar Roll: The caterpillar roll contains cucumber, fish cakes or imitation crab, and an avocado ‘shell’.
    • Spider Roll: This roll is notable in that it has fried seafood, for a heavier taste, as well as the signature taste of fish eggs. Fried crab is combined with avocado, cucumber, radish sprout, roe, and carrot.
    • Philly Roll: A Philly roll is cool and creamy, with cream cheese, salmon, avocado and sesame seeds for extra crunch.
    • California Roll: The popular California Roll includes imitation crab, avocado, and cucumber.
    • Tempura Roll: A tempura roll combines seafood, most popularly shrimp, avocado, and often eel sauce.
    • Rainbow Roll: As the name implies, this is a colorful option, both in hue and flavors. Imitation crab, avocado, cucumber, tuna, avocado, salmon, shrimp, and yellowtail gives a taste of just about every kind of main seafood. This is one where you might want to go with a simple wine and one where there will be no perfect wine pairing match.
    • Dragon Roll: Dragon Rolls combine cucumber with avocado and eel, and are most often topped with eel sauce.

Are there any other factors I need to know about sushi?

In terms of preparation, unless you’re going for a vegetarian option, you’ll want to know how the seafood has been prepared. Tempera implies that it’s been deep fried. Imitation is normally reserved for crab and tends to have a slightly less pronounced flavor and more rubbery texture. Some seafood, often shrimp, is cooked, while most of the time fish is served raw, though salmon is often cooked as well.

  • Raw fish tends to be more robust in flavor and has a more umami taste, whereas when fish is cooked, it becomes far milder and losing much of that umami taste. Cooked fish feels and taste lighter, while raw fish feels and tastes more rich, in a way more akin to some meats.
  • Imitation seafood, meanwhile, is less flavorful than real seafood. It tends to blend in with other flavors and is mostly a salt component.
  • The fillings should also be taken into consideration, but not as a main component. It’s easy to get caught up with all the ingredients going into sushi to determine the best wine pairings, but your goal is not to complement or match every flavor possible but instead understand the general flavor profile of the sushi you’re ordering. Generally, vegetables bring a cooling and fresh component that results in a more balanced, slightly less meaty sushi.

How do I select the best wine pairings with sushi?

As you can see, while wine pairings are always a complex topic in some ways, it is even more so with something like sushi, which has many varieties, flavors, and a complex profile of different ingredients. Keeping in mind that we’re focusing on the main flavor profiles of sushi as a whole, we’ll give you some general guidelines as to what wines usually complement sushi.

Later, we will also break down a few more specific pairings for different types of sushi.

What level of acidity is ideal?

Acidity in wine is what makes wine taste tart, much like the experience you get with something like lemonade. In other words, acidity is also what makes your mouth “pucker”. With most sushi, you want a wine that’s high in acidity to balance out the salty, umami, and fats from avocados and fish.

What level of tannins should I look for?

Tannins are a characteristic of wine that naturally occurs; the compound can actually be found in the bark and other fruit skins. What tannins effect is how dry the wine feels in your mouth. Higher tannins also add more texture and complexity. Very high tannins exhibit a taste similar to black tea. For this reason, with sushi, you’re actually looking for a wine that has very low tannins. The sushi already has enough texture and complexity that a high tannin wine would overwhelm it; An astringent taste would not complement the salty and umami elements of most sushi rolls and other forms of sushi. However, this is not true of all sushi. Yellowfin, for instance, is meaty and has an umami factor similar to a steak–hence, a wine with medium tannins makes more sense

Should I go for a dry or sweet wine?

Dry wines are wines that little to no residual sugars. While a sushi roll with heat, like a spicy tuna roll, can couple with a semi-dry wine with just a touch of sweetness to balance the spicy and heat elements, most sushi is best with a dry wine. Sushi tends to have brighter notes, especially sushi that includes fillings with fresh vegetables. With a fish very high on unami, however, you can get buy with a touch of sweetness. If you’re longing for a wine with just a bit of sweetness, your best pairing is with sushi that has a rich, ‘meaty’ filling and is smothered in a spicy sauce–like a spicy tuna roll. The richness of the filling itself, coupled with the heat of the sauce can be balanced with a semi-dry or mildly sweet wine if you’d rather bring out some sweeter notes.

Do I want a full body or lighter body wine?

There are some interesting points for both sides, but at the end of the day, what matters most is the filling itself. Something lighter requires a light body wine, so it does not overweigh the experience of the sushi itself, while meatier cuts of fish, rich in natural oils, do better with a medium body; fully body is possible with the very richest sushi choices.

    1. For the lightest options, including vegetarian, shrimp, and imitation crab, opt for a light bodied wine.
    2. For medium options, such as cooked salmon and fish cakes, a light body wine is a good match.
    3. The heaviest options include yellowfin, some raw salmon, and other sushi grade fish heavy in unami and rich in natural fats. Tempera also fits into this category. For these, a medium to full body wine makes sense.

What color of wine goes best with sushi?

Traditionally when we think of sushi, we gravitate more towards white wines. White wines typically offer more in terms of gentle flavors with bright citrus notes. White wines are also commonly paired with seafood dishes in general. If you aren’t a fan of white wine, though, you aren’t limited to it. Some argue that a medium body red wine works well with a tuna, because of the natural oils; sauce preparations too, like a heavy wasabi cream, can help to sushi hold up to red wine. In general, though, sushi is a natural match for white wine.

What flavor notes are most ideal in a wine?

With sushi, you’ll want to look for fruit and or citrus notes, but for the most part, steer away from heavier darker fruits (think blackberries, plums) as well as richer accents (such as cocoa and earthy elements); with the exception of tempera and yellowfin, you want your wine to be bright and fresh.

What about oak aging?

A rule of thumb for sushi is to steer away from oak-aged wines. They tend to produce more robust, smoother wines with notes like vanilla that are simply not the best pairings with sushi.

What about sparkling wines?

Sparkling wine can add a special touch to your sushi plate. In fact, sparkling wine is a natural pair for less heavy options, like sashimi or sushi rolls that are vegetarian or incorporate very mild seafood, like scallops.

Can you summarize for me a bit and give me examples of wine pairings with sushi?

Since there are a number of factors we have to consider when it comes to finding the best wine with sushi–many of them variable–it makes the most sense to summarize and break them down a bit.

In general, if you want to play it safe, opt for a white wine that is bright in acidity, light to medium in body, plays with fresh citrus notes, is low in tannins and relatively dry. The already high salt content of sushi that incorporates seaweed, especially if you’re serving with soy sauce, pairs also with gentle, light fruits, but wine with a salt element is best avoided.

Here’s what we’re looking at for individual types of sushi:

  • For tempera, opt for a lighter body white wine with bright acidity like Sauvignon Blanc. You may think you need to go heavier, but fried seafood actually does better with something that lifts it to provide balance, and bright acidity with a lighter body does just that.
  • For the heaviest options, high on unami, like surf and turf or a rich tuna, you have a few options. You can select a slightly more full body red wine with bright notes like Cabernet Sauvignon. However, more safely, you can get by with a fuller bodied white wine. If you’re having sushi that combines natural oils and heat, like a spicy tuna roll, something like a semi-sweet Riesling may be in order.
  • For light, delicate fillings, stick with a delicate white wine. Shrimp, imitation crab, and scallops, as well as vegetarian options all, fit into this category. Such seafood needs a fresh left, not to be weighed down, so a wine with bright acidity is also ideal. This kind of sushi or sashimi is also better served with dry to very dry white wine. Albariño, a Spanish white wine, is a great option. So too is a Sauvignon Blanc is you want a slightly fruitier flavor or Prosecco.
  • If you’re getting nigiri, consider a more simple wine. Many times we prize wine for the complexity of flavors, but a wine that has a central flavor note and that comes off as delicate and refreshing is best for most nigiri. Nigiri, unlike sushi rolls, does not have the fillings, such as avocado and cream cheese, nor the seaweed. In this case, you want to complement rather than overwhelm the fresh simplicity of nigiri. Opt for a Pinot Grigio.
  • Sashimi is a little different.  Since sashimi’s focus is on the raw fish itself, you need a wine that enhances the rich and natural oils and meaty taste. Here you can have either a lighter red wine, like pinot noir from a cooler region or a (not oaked) Chardonnay.

Do you have any sample wine with sushi pairings?

Before your next sushi order, check out some of our suggestions.

  1. If you’re ordering tempera, try something like the 2017 Groth Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. This California white wine holds an aggregated critic score of eighty out of one hundred, but costs under twenty dollars a bottle. Bright, green, and refreshing, this is a simple white wine that will provide lift.
  2. For a spicy tuna roll, get creative with something like the 2017 Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling. This sweet Riesling features bright tangerine, lime, and just a hint of stone fruit for a touch of sweetness to add complexity without overwhelming the heat of the roll, and also bringing out the naturally sweet notes of the tuna.
  3. With lighter sushi, try the 2017 Doelas Rias Baixas Albariño. The bright Spanish wine offers delightful citrus and stone fruit flavors, with just a hint of mineral undertones for a crisp and refreshing taste.
  4. Ordering nigiri? Try pairing it with the 2017 San Pietro Pinot Grigio. A long finish and fruity flavors present a wine that is not too complicated but rich enough to match a fresh tuna or salmon.
  5. For sashimi, try The White Queen Chardonnay, 2014. This white wine comes from Sonoma County, one of California’s most prominent growing regions, and exhibits bright flavors of grapefruit, peach, and a hint of sweeter undertones like honey and nuts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I prepare Sushi with any kind of rice?

If you want to make sushi with the best result, you will need to use the recommended type of rice. Fin a Japonica rice, or the medium-grain California rice. This type of rice will keep everything together in the roll.

What holds everything together in a roll of sushi?

It is very important that the sushi has a nice and solid structure. For this, the rice or the nori will do the main job. Close really tightly the roll, so it can keep its shape after cutting it.

Do you make sushi with hot or cold rice?

Before assembling the sushi rolls, you have to make sure the rice is cooled down. If you want if to chill quickly, spread it in a baking pan and cover it with a towel to prevent the rice from drying

Further read:

Erin Jamieson

Erin Jamieson brings the latest information to you on wine flavors and types so you can enjoy your next glass to the fullest. In the past, she covered wine selections for weddings and engagement parties. She also previously worked with a private chef company to suggest the perfect wine pairings and believes there is a flavor for every occasion. Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio.