Before we can discuss which wines go with sushi, I should tell you that sushi is one of the toughest foods to pair with wine. So, if you’ve had wines conflict with sushi, that’s normal! However, after reading this post, you’ll be able to avoid these common clashes.
First, let’s look at some basic wine and food pairing rules to understand how sushi will interact with wine. Then, we’ll identify the most important food elements in the dish. In this case, it is the strongest food flavours in sushi that we will need to match the wine to.
Moving forward, here’s an outline of the food pairings rules that will come into play.
Wine pairing dos
The 3 wine and food pairing rules we will apply to wines that go well with sushi are:
- Identify the most important food element of the dish and match the wine to that
- Match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food
- Spicy foods will make the alcohol feel hotter and conversely make the food taste spicier. Therefore, it’s often best to choose a wine with low alcohol to go with spicy foods.
But you can’t mention the rules that make pairings work, without mentioning the ‘don’t do this!’ rules.
Wine pairing don'ts
- Avoid high alcohol wines with spicy dishes.
- Avoid wines with high levels of tannin and new oak ageing when eating fish, especially when eating raw fish like salmon.
Now first, let’s examine the three wine and food pairing rules that apply here more closely.
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Wine and Food Pairing Rules:
Identify the most important food element(s) in the dish
What’s your favourite type of sushi? Is it bonita fish sushi? Perhaps you like spicy albacore tuna? Or maybe the vegetarian sushi rolls please you the most?
How do you choose a wine when you order one type of roll, but your partner prefers another kind? Which sushi do you choose to pair with the wine?
In truth, it doesn’t matter!
When pairing wine with food, you often need to identify the strongest flavours or boldest flavours in the dish and choose a wine to pair with that.
To this end, the most important food element in sushi rolls is the soy sauce. Why? This dipping sauce is the strongest and therefore the most important element in choosing what wine to drink with sushi rolls.
The second most important food element in sushi rolls is the wasabi. Why? Because even miniscule amounts of wasabi are extremely spicy.
The third most important element in sushi is raw fish (if you order any). Why? Because fish oils greatly increase the likelihood that the wine will taste either super fishy or taste metallic – like you’ve just licked the steel bars in a playground. Yuck!
Soy sauce is a fermented condiment made from soy beans and wheat. It is full-flavoured (pungent), highly salty and slightly sour.
Due to its full flavour, this food element is more important than the type of sushi roll you order.
Wasabi is a common condiment served with sushi. It is made from a green Japanese root that is part of the horseradish family.
It is made into a thick paste. And even miniscule amounts of wasabi are extremely spicy.
Due to it’s extremely high spice levels, wasabi is one of the strongest food elements in sushi.
Wine and Food Pairing Rule:
Match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food
Professional sommeliers know that in order for a wine and food pairing to work, you have to match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food.
Because if they don’t match, you’ll end up thinking the wine isn’t very good. Either you won’t be able to taste the wine at all because it is too light. Or, the wine will completely hide the flavours of the food because it will be too heavy.
What do we mean when we discuss a wine's weight?
A wine’s weight could be more accurately described as mouthfeel.
Think about what it’s like to leave skim milk in your mouth versus whole milk. Then think about what the mouthfeel of holding some whipping cream in your mouth is like.
That’s the difference in mouthfeel between a light-bodied, medium-bodied and full-bodied wine. Again, body is how we describe a wine’s weight or mouthfeel.
If you would like to know more about wine body and how that relates to choosing wines to go with food, you can check out my post here.
So then, what wine weight or body do we need so that the wine stands up to the soy sauce and the sushi?
Soy sauce with fatty fish and rice is fairly weighty, but not as heavy-weighted as it would be if the dish was smothered in a teriyaki sauce, for example.
You will therefore need a mid-weight or medium-bodied wine to stand up to the sushi rolls dipped in soy sauce.
How can you tell if a wine is medium-bodied or mid-weight?
In short, mid-weight wines are mostly wines within the 11-13.5% abv alcohol range. However, wines that have less alcohol, but have some residual sugar (RS) in them can also be mid-weight. Wines with some sweetness are called off-dry wines.
Furthermore, a touch of sweetness or residual sugar in wines provide a nice balance to counterweight all the salt. They will also refresh your palate if you like a lot of wasabi mixed into your soy sauce.
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Wine and Food Pairing Rule:
It's often best to choose a wine with low to medium alcohol (8% - 13.5%) to go with spicy foods.
It’s often best to choose a wine with low to medium alcohol if you are eating spicy foods. That’s because hot spice makes the alcohol taste hotter. Conversely, the alcohol in wine will bring out the hot spice in the food. Hence, you need to be aware of this when adding wasabi to your sushi.
But there are some things you can do to contain the heat (if you want to!)
On this thread, German Rieslings are often off-dry AND have low alcohol at the same time. More on this below.
However, if you don’t add a lot of wasabi to your sushi or if you love the heat in your mouth, choosing a low-alcohol wine won’t be necessary.
And off-dry wines are not the only wines that will work well with sushi.
So using the rules listed above, let’s discuss some wines that go well with sushi. I’ll also take care to avoid wines with high levels of tannin and new oak barrel ageing because those wines really don’t work well with fish oils.
Which wines should you drink with sushi?
Here are wines that go with sushi
Drink off-dry Rieslings that showcase ripe fruit flavours such as peach and apricot.
Off-dry or slightly sweet wines such as Spätlese [pronounced ‘sshpate-lays-uh’] German Rieslings tend to work really well with both raw fish and soy or ginger-based dishes. These wines bear low – medium alcohol levels so they won’t heat up your mouth if you like wasabi.
However, a riper style off-dry Riesling from Washington State (US), Canada or from New Zealand will also pair quite well. These wines tend to have slightly higher alcohol levels. So if you don’t mind the heat in your mouth with the wasabi, they’re great.
Rieslings are also known for being intensely fruity. Furthermore, Riesling wines rarely have high alcohol.
On the other hand, Riesling grapes are known for having a wide range of fruit aromas. Rieslings can taste like lime juice or lime zest, range from underripe green apple to riper red apples, and ripen all the way to tasting like apricot and peach fruit. Riesling can even taste like honey!
Choose rieslings that have ripe fruit flavours of nectarine, apricot and peach go well with sushi. These are mid-weight wines.
Or wines with lots of juicy fruity flavours and low tannin go well with sushi.
Choose wines with ample fruit-forwardness or juicy fruity flavours to stand up to the fish oils and soy sauce.
This works for both white and red wines.
Concentrated fruit notes such as peach, nectarine and pineapple for white wines and strawberry, raspberry and cherry for red wines – tend to work really well with sushi dishes. It’s the fruit concentration (which in turn relates to ripeness, higher sugar levels and more body in the wine) that helps avoid fishy or metallic off-flavours coming out in the wine.
We already mentioned riper styles of Riesling up above. However, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer from Alsace also offer ripe fruit flavours. Not to mention, Gew’s [gooz] from Alsace sometimes have a bit of RS – which helps too.
Red wines that go well with sushi...
How about red wine options?
Remember, you are trying to avoid toasty new oak flavours and wines with high tannin.
I’m splitting hairs here but I’m going to give you all of the information that my extensive experience with wine pairing provides.
Therefore, if you are choosing a Pinot Noir – pick one that has riper fruits (cherry, plum not the lighter strawberry versions – you want this to be a mid-weight wine, not light). However, pick a Pinot that uses used oak, or clay amphora for ageing, for example. This may be a really difficult thing to find.
Otherwise, if there is French oak barrique ageing, make sure the Pinot is a premium, concentrated riper style of style (think Volnay Premier Cru from France or Seasmoke from Santa Barbara). You’ll be spending $$$ for these styles.
Yet, it’s not necessary for the wine to be that pricey. The trick here is to find a producer that uses a gentle touch with new oak and offers silky, creamy rich fruit.
more red wines that go with sushi...
An easier choice is to pick a Beaujolais from France. Made with Gamay Noir and showing intensely fruity cherry, pomegranite and raspberry in a light to mid-weight frame, these wines are rarely oaked. So, if you have to drink red, these are great for pairing with sushi.
Another red suggestion is a ‘Joven’ Tempranillo from Spain – wines from Rioja are a good example.
‘Joven’ by definition means the wine is unoaked and shows fresh fruit qualities. On this thread, most ‘Joven’ wines made with Garnacha or Cariñena should fair well too, but here you will see much higher alcohol levels than with Tempranillo wines from Rioja.
Cheap Chianti Classicos fit the bill (no oak, medium alcohol, ripe fruits) as do inexpensive Merlot’s from Venezie IGT, both from Italy.
Sometimes, an oaked Chardonnay will do the trick - but it MUST be one that showcases ripe, concentrated fruit flavours. I'd be careful with this wine style.
Oak can be fine with sushi – but it must be a wine that has ample fruit. Therefore, if you prefer Chardonnay, choose wines from California, or Australian over New Zealand or Canada.
Again, best are producers that are known for restricting new oak barrel usage. But as long as the fruit flavours of pineapple, banana and peach dominate the oak flavours – this pairing will work just fine.
That’s why French wines are often better than New World wines. Think Pouilly-Fuissé, Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet for your Chardonnays.
But you are gambling here!
So if you notice you’re wine is tasting fishy, either lessen the amount of soy sauce you dip the rolls in or, push the wine aside and finish drinking it after you’ve finished the sushi rolls.
A better gamble is to think pink and choose a rosé.
The rosés that go best with sushi are ones that are fruit-forward – with lots of red, juicy fruits showcased in the wine and mid-weight in body.
So, I think this rules out most Provence rosés – they are too pretty, too light and the fish and soy sauce will likely highlight those metallic, fishy off-flavours in the wine.
Tavel from France is a much better choice to go with sushi!
Likewise, there are some new world rosés that offer that fruit-forward style. Even better is if the rosé has a little residual sugar in it. The sugar will smooth out the complicated soy/ raw fish combination.
Meyer Family Vineyards Rosé and Little Farm Mariposa Vineyard Rosé from British Columbia match this style.
And don’t forget about bubbles! A Champagne from France with a good dosage of RS (residual sugar) can be choice. Best yet is a Champagne Rosé that’s made using the Saignée.
Sync the pairing by thinking pink, I say!
With complicated full flavoured dishes, you could choose a simple, lightweight wine and it will work reasonably well..
Keep this idea in your backpocket.
Choosing an inexpensive and simple lightweight wine will work reasonably well with sushi rolls.
Northern Italian Pinot Grigios, pretty much any basic patio sipper can fill in here. Inexpensive wines won’t have any new oak. This goes for both reds and whites.
This style of wine won’t fit in our rule: ‘Match the weight of the wine with the weight of the food’ so the wine may get a little lost on your palate.
But that’s ok!
When choosing which wine to drink with your food, first isolate the main flavour or strongest flavours in the dish. Then, choose a wine that is the same weight as that food element.
Therefore, I’ve choosen to match the wines above to the soy sauce, the wasabi and the raw fish in sushi rolls.
And if the wine you choose ends up tasting fishy or like you’ve just licked metal, it’s not you.
Raw fish dishes like sushi are known to be difficult to match with wine. Just remember to enjoy the journey and choose a different wine next time using the recommendations above.
Is there a wine you drank with sushi and it clashed?
Tell us about your #sushipairingfails below
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