Fishing for complements
A wine made for sushi sparks a drinkable debate.
In 1998 a Japanese woman named Yoko Sato moved to Spain to become a wine maker. Like most wine makers, she had a mission. Unlike most wine makers, that mission was painstakingly specific: She wanted to make wine for sushi.
Now that wine—”Oroya,” a blend of three Spanish white varietals— is finally available in Chicago (look for it at Sam’s Wine & Spirits in coming weeks, or try it now at sushi restaurants Shine, Oysy and Rise). Considering the fact that there are high-end sushi spots constantly popping up all over town, you could say that this is the essential Windy City quaff. But while we were intrigued by the idea of the perfect sushi wine, we had to wonder: Is it possible for one bottle to go with every possible piece of sushi? What about the ginger, wasabi and soy sauce?
To find out, we corralled Belinda Chang, sommelier of Cenitare restaurants (the four new Rick Tramonto–Gale Gand concepts opening this fall in Wheeling), and sommelier Fernando Beteta, general manager at NoMI, to eat dinner with us at BYOB sushi joint Coast. We drank the Oroya. We drank sake. We drank champagne (we couldn’t resist). And along the way we realized that not all sushi and wine pairings are created equal.
So is Oroya the perfect sushi wine? After tasting the Oroya with some sushi, the answer seemed to be...kinda. “It’s not really very complex,” Beteta commented. “It’s an amplifier wine.” Chang concurred, noting that the foolproof mellowness of the wine makes it perfect for “someone who’s afraid to make a mistake.” But while the Oroya had the ability to blend with sushi flavors—and maybe even intensify them—it was clear that it wasn’t for anything spicy. “Ooh,” Chang winced after tasting it with some ginger. “[The wine] makes it hotter.”
Verdict: The Oroya definitely works with sushi. But you can do better.
“This is what people traditionally believe is the right way to go,” Chang said. Both Chang and Beteta said that this particular Riesling—a Bonny Doon bottle geared specifically for sushi—fared better than the Oroya.
Verdict: Go for it. The sweetness handles the heat of wasabi and ginger, and the acidity wipes the palate clean
Chang and Beteta love sake, but they scoffed at the idea of taking a bottle to a BYOB joint. “That’s like taking a bottle of vodka,” Chang said. But that’s not to say sake doesn’t have its place. Take a sip before you pop sushi into your mouth, Beteta suggested. That way, the sushi enhances the sake, not the other way around.
Verdict: It’s a perfect way to start your meal, but then it’s wine time.
It’s practically a requirement of sommeliers to prefer champagne, and tonight was no exception: Beteta and Chang reached for it again and again. “The champagne is rocking it,” Chang said.
Verdict: Champagne is one of the world’s most versatile food wines, but this bottle was particularly suited for sushi. “It’s because it’s rosé,” Chang said, noting that a white champagne may not have the richness to handle meatier fish and elaborate maki rolls.
“Everyone’s like, red doesn’t go with sushi,” Beteta lamented. “But if it’s unoaked, youthful and has nice fruit, it cleanses the palate and adds a fruit element.” Beteta and Chang couldn’t get enough of the pinot, especially with the tempura-and-mayo–laden White Dragon roll: The wine met the richness of the maki but still had enough acidity to finish clean. “Pinot noir,” Chang murmured lovingly, “is a revelation.”
Verdict: “Red goes well with red,” Beteta says, referring to the darker, fish like tuna and salmon. “White with the white.” And it’s even better chilled.
The people have spoken
Sommeliers are nice and everything, but we wanted to get a second opinion on the Oroya. So we took it to the people. Targeting unsuspecting diners who were busy eating sushi and drinking wine of their own, Chang and Beteta offered to pour them a taste. Kara Cleland and Michael Beazley—a couple who had brought a hefty shiraz that Beazley described as “nothing out of this world”—said the Oroya was “good,” but they didn’t seem too psyched. Yet Brooke McLaughlin and Kathi Ruud, visitors from the Quad Cities, were immediately hooked. McLaughlin, who earlier in the night had told her table that she’d rather be eating McDonald’s than raw fish, lit up after just one sip. “I like this better,” she said, dissing the Rodney Strong merlot and chardonnay she had been drinking all night. Rudd concurred, taking big swigs and nodding eagerly in agreement. “It’s good, it’s light,” she said, holding out her glass. “Can I have some more?”