Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chenin Blanc are some of the best white wines to pair with the clean and delicate flavors of sushi. They have high acidity, good minerality, citrus and fruit notes, and they’re also quite versatile wines. This is important because people tend to order a wide selection of fish when they’re having sushi. Ideally, you want a wine that goes with everything.
Pinot Grigio is another recommended white wine pairing for sushi or sashimi. Look for a bottle from the northern Italian regions of Veneto, Friuli and Alto Adige where the wines can have citrus, herbs, spice and even some yellow apple to them. If you’d like to try something a bit different, you can’t go wrong with Grüner Vetliner. It’s a white wine from Austria that has notes of pear, asparagus and white pepper and it goes especially well with vegetarian sushi, the salmon in Alaska rolls, and nigiri with richer flavors – think the sweet and salty taste of eel.
But white wine isn’t your only option for Japanese food pairings, don’t forget about bubbles! Sparkling wines like Champagne and Cava are bright and crisp and can help to bring out the more nuanced flavors in raw fish. They also wake your mouth up and can really elevate a meal without the risk of overpowering it. If you don’t want a whole bottle, you can always start with a glass of sparkling and move to a still wine afterwards.
Rosé is a nice sushi wine pairing option. Have salmon or tuna with a lighter style rosé wine from Provence or pair a fuller-bodied rosé from California that’s Pinot Noir or Syrah-based. Manzanilla sherry, and of course sake are also fitting pairings for both nigiri and maki.
Last but not least, if you’re of the school that red wine is a no-go for fish, think again. You can pair low tannin, high acidity red wines with most rolls and some sashimi. Choose a wine made from the Gamay grape, like a Beaujolais, or go with a fruit-forward and lighter-bodied wine like a Pinot Noir. A Barbera can even work. Red wine makes an excellent sushi pairing if you’ve ordered fatty tuna, a spicy tuna roll or cooked dishes with more prominent flavor profiles.
More about sushi
There are different kinds of sushi. Nigiri is fish draped over rice, and maki is commonly known as a sushi roll. Rolls combine different kinds of fish with vegetables and rice and can be quite tangy and sweet, or more neutral depending on what you’ve ordered. The most important thing to keep in mind is it’s best to steer clear of wines that will overpower the fish you’re having. A heavily oaked Chardonnay or a big, tannic wine, like a Cabernet, can overwhelm your senses so you aren’t able to pick up on the subtle flavors in the food.
Another important point, some of the most popular fish used in sushi, namely salmon and tuna, tends to be quite fatty. A light and high acid white wine will cut through the fat – even better if it’s crisp and unoaked!
Top Tip: If you really like Chardonnay, you don’t have to give it up just because you’re having sushi. An unoaked Chardonnay that is aged in stainless steel will go best. Chablis and Mâcon-Villages are unoaked Chardonnays that have good primary fruit and will still be as light and fresh as you need them to be for your nigiri.
6 Best white wines for sushi
- Sauvignon Blanc. Just about all styles of Sauvignon Blanc pair with sushi, from a bright gooseberry and tropical fruit-driven wine made in New Zealand to the more mineral and citrus Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire region. Just remember the French use the name of the region where the wine is produced, not the grape. Look for bottles that say Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé or Reuilly. Note, they also make delicious Sauvignon Blancs in South Africa, South America, the United States and northern Italy. No matter where it comes from, this fruity white wine is a safe bet for sushi and will likely go with everything you order. You can also be sure that it will be served by the glass.
- Riesling. This is one of the most versatile white wines out there. It has notes of lemon and green apple and can pair with most foods. It’s also the best choice if you like to go heavy on the soy sauce when you’re having sushi. Not everyone has had a Riesling that they like and that’s often due to the range of styles in which they make this wine. It used to be that most Rieslings were quite sweet, but nowadays there are plenty of drier wines you should try from Germany, Austria and Australia, as well as Alsace and Upper State New York (look for Trocken on the label if the wine is from Germany). If you don’t mind a wine with a hint of sweetness, a semi-dry Riesling will stand up well to spicy rolls and sweeter sushi that has eel.
- Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio. These are the same wines, they just have different names depending on where they’re made. A Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon makes an outstanding pairing with nigiri because of its light and clean mouthfeel and high acidity. You often get fuller flavors and a richer texture with these white wines. If you want Pinot Grigio, in our opinion wine from northern Italy is the best quality (note Grigio means gray in Italian). Pinot Grigios make excellent sushi wine pairings. They can be lively and distinct with herbal notes and some spice to them.
- Grüner Vetliner. Grüner Vetliner is a bright white wine that has distinct flavors of pear, asparagus or stone fruits and white pepper. It’s a medium-bodied and acidic wine that makes a nice pairing with most sushi, especially sushi that’s on the spicy side. It’s also the largest produced wine in Austria. You can find Grüner Vetliner on many sushi restaurant wine lists and it will sometimes be by the glass. The best wine shops will have a bottle or two.
- Chenin Blanc. This is a white wine from France that’s also made in South Africa. It can have citrus and honey flavors and makes the best pairing with eel. French wines are called by the name of the region where they’re made, so look for Vouvray and Savennières. Incidentally, Chenin Blancs are known for how long they can be aged as they have such good acidity.
- Manzannila Sherry. Manzanilla is a Fino sherry made and aged in Jerez, Spain. It has a hint of saltiness and notes of the sea. Manzanilla Fino is bone dry and an interesting fact is they use the same yeast for most Manzanilla production as they do to brew sake in Japan!
Why rosé goes so well
Rosé is made from a white wine where the wine has been fermented on its skins for a brief period to give it some color and a little more body and flavor. A glass of rosé makes an exceptional pairing with fatty tuna dishes or maki and nigiri that have roe. Roe are those bright orange fish eggs that can be quite salty and sweet with a sometimes creamy texture. They make excellent rosé in the south of France, particularly in the Provence region, and Italy has a famous darker-colored rosé called Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, with strong notes of cherry.
Sparkling wines and Champagne
While most people think of sparkling wines as a celebratory drink that’s primarily for toasting, the drier styles pair well with food because they’re bright and higher in acidity. The carbonation in the wine also helps to wake up the mouth so you’re more receptive to the flavors in what you’re eating. The highest quality wines have excellent minerality and are usually made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. They can be made in a white or rosé style, be dry or have different degrees of sweetness. Champagne is a famous type of sparkling wine that comes exclusively from the Champagne region but you can also find sparkling wines from Spain, Italy, the US and England. From Spain, look for Cava and from Italy, Franciacorta or Prosecco.
Sake is an alcoholic drink that comes from Japan and is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “rice wine.” In reality, it’s brewed like beer, not made like wine. Sakes can vary in flavor and taste depending on where they are brewed and the water used, but they are natural sushi pairings. Most sushi restaurants offer a wider selection in different sizes and served cold (the best quality sake is meant to be drunk cold). For higher quality sakes, look for Ginjo, Junmai or Daiginjo. Nigori is a sweet and unfiltered sake that’s cloudy.
3 Red wines to have with sushi
Beaujolais is a light to medium-bodied wine made from the Gamay grape. This wine has high acidity and notes of cherry, raspberry and blackberry. The region it comes from is known for its granite deposits which gives the wine good minerality and makes it go so well with seafood. Beaujolais is also a wine that’s low in tannins which means you can pair it with oiler fish. You can get a Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages or a Crus Beaujolais which will be named after the village it’s from.
Pinot Noir is another red wine that’s high in acidity and low in tannins which makes it an excellent wine to have with seafood. It can be light to medium in body and have delicate fruity notes that won’t overpower your sushi. This wine is quite popular these days and you won’t struggle to find it on wine lists by the glass. They make Pinot Noir in Burgundy, as well as California, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa and Chile. Prices can range significantly but expect to pay $20 or more at a store and $38+ at a restaurant.
When you think of food pairings for red wines from Italy, you may picture heavy pasta dishes and other classic Italian fare that seems miles away from the clean and light vibe of Japanese food and raw fish. Nonetheless, Barbera is another red wine that’s relatively low in tannins and has good fruit and acidity. While it may make for a slightly unorthodox choice, a fresh and crisp Barbera can be an interesting wine pairing with sushi. In particular, the sour cherry, raspberry and blackberry notes with a touch of pepper and spice may be just the ticket to highlight the flavors in certain fatty fishes. Look for a Barbera that has only had light oak aging so the crispness and acidity stand out.
What are the best wine food pairings for different kinds of sushi?
- Whitefish or sea bass. Whitefish and sea bass sushi tends to be quite delicate. Go with a Gavi di Gavi which is a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy. It will have a bright lemon flavor and a clean mouthfeel that make for a beautiful pairing with the fish.
- Octopus. If you’ve ordered octopus, it’s best to stick with white wine. Try a Grillo or an Etna Bianco from Sicily. These are dry white wines with lemon and citrus notes that go well with seafood.
- Crab. Crab is a shellfish that can be on the sweeter side. Pair it with a white wine from the Rhône region made from the Viognier grape. This wine has a little more body to it and can be medium dry with lovely stone fruit.
- California roll. California rolls are a popular kind of sushi made with avocado, cucumber and either crab or kani. While avocado doesn’t always go so well with wine, a Vouvray, which is a Chenin Blanc from France, can work here. Look for a wine that says sec or demi-sec on the label. A Vouvray has beautiful fruit to it that will help balance out the pairing.
- Philadelphia roll. This sushi is made with smoked salmon, cream cheese and avocado. A sparkling rosé can be an excellent pairing here. Look for a wine from California or Oregon.
- Salmon avocado. A salmon and avocado roll will go well with a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or a Pinot Noir from Oregon. You can also pair red wine because salmon is quite a fatty and oily fish.
- Vegetarian sushi. Because you might encounter pickled radishes or carrots in many vegetarian rolls, you could try a Junmai sake. Just make sure to order it cold! If you’re not a fan of sakes, white wine pairings with a Grüner Vetliner or Sauvignon Blanc will work as well.
- Cucumber roll. Because cucumber is quite neutral and watery you want a wine with a little more character and acidity. Try a bright and zesty Picpoul from the Languedoc of France or a Languedoc white blend.
- Spicy tuna roll. Pair a Fleurie, which is a Crus Beaujolais that has delicate fruit and floral notes. It’s a red wine that can handle the heat and will work well with the texture of the spicy sauce.
- Dragon roll. Riesling is an excellent choice for sushi rolls that have a lot of ingredients because it goes so well with different foods (this one has eel, crab sticks, avocado and cucumber). However, eel can be almost caramelized so you don’t necessarily need dry wine pairings. Try pairing a semi-dry Riesling from Germany that either says Kabinett or Spätlese on the label.
Which wines pair well with fermented and pickled food?
Miso is a fermented paste that they make from soybeans and a kind of mold. It’s very common in Japanese cuisine and if you’re at a Japanese restaurant you’ll likely end up with a few side dishes that have Miso as a base flavor. Because it’s salty, yeasty and can be on the sweeter side, pair Miso dishes with Rieslings. You might also encounter pickled radishes, cucumbers or carrots in vegetarian sushi. Pickled foods tend to be quite sour and while there’s no best wine food pairing, you could get away with sake or a glass of Manzanilla sherry (or a beer if you’re not having wine).
How about tempura?
Tempura is a kind of fried food from Japan that’s often served with a sweet dipping sauce. It can be vegetables or fish and is a popular dish on Japanese menus as well as something you might see in sushi (for example a shrimp or soft shelled crab tempura). Because it’s fried, the best wine pairings will be high acid white wines. You could pair an Albariño from Spain or an Alvarinho, which is a similar wine from Portugal. These are dry white wines with good citrus flavors.