Beyond Sake: How to Pair Wine with Japanese Cuisine

By Georgene Mortimer, Island Winery

Japanese restaurants are ideal destinations for groups with different food preferences.

Sushi and sashimi provide the opportunity to experience the true essence of fish, from cooked and familiar to raw and exotic. Subtly flavored noodle dishes such as udon, soba and ramen make a hearty comfort meal. Tempura cuisine is a deep-fried delight, while teriyaki and hibachi dishes show that the Japanese have mastered the art of the grill.

Although sake, or rice wine, is the authentic partner for Japanese cuisine, grape-based wines are excellent choices as well. Let’s explore!

Some sushi rolls feature many ingredients and complex flavors. Most sushi and sashimi items are served with spicy wasabi and pungent ginger, making them the trickiest Japanese selections to pair with wine. A fragrant white wine is the answer. A slightly sweet Gewürztraminer, with its strong lychee aroma, will enhance the fragrant ginger and complement the earthiness of the fish.

However, the strong flavors of Gewürztraminer are not for everyone. Often, sushi and sashimi are served as an assorted platter, combining many tastes and flavors. An aromatic off-dry Riesling or a young Sauvignon Blanc is perfect for a combo platter. A Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand complements sashimi and simple sushi rolls.

If you’re seeking comfort food, then Japanese noodle dishes are for you — served cold, hot, stir-fried or in a soup. Sometimes noodles are served plain with a dipping sauce, but mostly they are mixed with vegetables, roasted meats, fish or eggs.

Thick and chewy udon noodles are the ultimate comfort food, and pair well with a light red wine such as a Pinot Noir or full-bodied, white versions of Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. By contrast, ramen noodles served in a rich broth with slices of roast pork pair perfectly with red versions of Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

If grilling is your choice, then teriyaki or hibachi dishes will satisfy with offerings of beef, pork, chicken, fish or vegetables. Hibachi cooking is done on an iron grill with light seasoning and served with dipping sauces. Teriyaki is all about the sauce. Translated as “glossy grilled,” teriyaki involves continuously basting the meat throughout the grilling process.

Depending on what you order, the full gamut of the wine list is in play for these dishes. Bold red Zinfandels and Cabernets are great with beef dishes. Medium-bodied reds such as Merlot or Malbec pair well with pork, while lighter reds such as Pinot Noir and most dry whites will do just fine with fish or vegetables.

Tempura is one of the most popular Japanese dishes for good reason. Using a tasty batter, perfectly cooked tempura is extremely light and crispy. This deep-frying technique is usually used for shrimp and vegetables. The perfect wine would be a light-bodied white wine that doesn’t have a lot of fragrance. A young, steely Chablis or Chenin Blanc will work well, as would an Italian Pinot Grigio or a light Rosé.

So the next time you visit a Japanese restaurant, put down the sake cup, pick up a wine glass and enjoy!

The perfect bottle of hand-crafted artisan wine awaits at Island Winery on Cardinal Rd. Wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. (843) 842-3141 or