Put Down the Sake, Sushi’s Ideal Match is Actually Champagne
A growing thirst for sparkling wine in Japan is fueling a revelatory new pairing that’s now trending at home and abroad. Plus, a helpful guide to the best bottles to look for on a wine list.
At a recent lunch in Carmel, California, as part of Relais & Châteaux’s GourmetFest, chef Shinichiro Takagi of Michelin two-star restaurant Zeniya on Japan’s western coast was cooking, and I had two glasses in front of me. One held Pommery Grand Cru 2004, and the other, a sake from the Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery. The question before me: which to pair with the chef’s sashimi?
So, I tried them both. Where the sake’s rice-based pungency led me deeper into the flavors of the dish—a piece of flash-seared toro cut from a tuna’s belly and lean akami from the fish’s back, topped with sea urchin and dressed in citrus-and-soy chirizu sauce—the champagne gave me a respite, its brightness and effervescence cleansing my palate for the next bite.
“It’s obvious that sake and sushi are from the same cuisine,” Pommery’s chef de cave Thierry Gasco told me, “but this balance with champagne’s acidity and freshness really puts the raw fish into a new light. It adds a complexity.”
He was right. In fact, the bubbles helped me focus on the superb tuna more successfully than the sake. It was a revelation. And, as it turns out, it’s an experience that sushi lovers are having a lot now as sommeliers at sushi restaurants here and in Japan look beyond the traditional sake and, instead, pop champagne corks.
The trend mirrors Japan’s growing thirst for champagne. With nearly 11 million bottles in 2016, Japan is now the world’s fourth largest importer of the stuff. And it’s projected to become sparkling wine’s biggest growth market by 2019. Thierry Gasco is so optimistic about Japan that Pommery is expanding to Hokkaido, where they will produce bottles strictly for Japanese consumers. Bollinger, too, is increasing their Japanese presence through a partnership with the Michelin one-star restaurant Sushi Ginza Iwa. Opened this past December in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district, its new restaurant, Ginza 815, serves the range of the house’s champagnes with raw fish.
Japanese sushi masters have also been coming to the States to launch restaurants that showcase sparkling wines as enthusiastically as they do the expected sake. Last May, the restaurateurs behind Hashiri in Tokyo’s hip Daikanyama district opened an outpost in San Francisco, which quickly garnered a Michelin star. From a 1983 Taittinger ‘Comtes Champagne’ Rose to non-vintage Krug, it offers 15 champagnes by the bottle. At Satsuki, legendary sushi chef Toshio Suzuki’s brand-new midtown Manhattan restaurant, sommelier Toshi Hamada is pouring the labels of Suzuki’s friends at La Caravelle Champagne and building a cellar that will feature Pol Roger and Perrier Jouet. “The only thing Champagne doesn’t go with is marinated sardines,” says Suzuki of its versatility.
And in New York’s West Village, Sushi Nakazawa boasts an ever-changing list of 60 or more sparkling wines. The selection is the brainchild of beverage director Garrett Smith, who came to Nakazawa in 2015 from Restaurant Daniel. Steeped in the wines of the Champagne region, he’s constantly tweaking the list, packing it with old vintages and unique small lots made by lauded growers like Pierre Peters. Sparkling wine’s acidity “does so many things,” he says. “It cuts through fat and brininess and saltiness. I always think of things that are more textural for sushi. And champagne is the ultimate for its textural aspects.”
With haute sushi specialists like these pouring so much sparkling wine now, there’s plenty hope that the trend will continue to spread. The possibilities for unique and exacting pairings are endless. I asked the experts for their favorite matches. Here are their delicious ideas.