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What to Drink With Japanese Food

Our guide to choosing sake and white wine—including our lists of recommended selections—for your spring entertaining

Laurie Woolever
Posted: April 5, 2007

As the weather gets warmer in the Northern Hemisphere, lighter food and wines become increasingly appealing. Home cooks and professionals alike look forward to the spring for the chance to use tender vegetables, seasonal seafood and delicate flavors. The Japanese table provides a perfect example, and while the idea of cooking a Japanese meal in your home may be intimidating, it's never been easier to have a great dining experience in a Japanese restaurant in the United States.

This, of course, raises the question: What to drink with Japanese food?

Sake

Sake is on the rise: Nearly $26 million worth, or 4.3 million liters, was imported to the United States in 2006, 170 percent more than just 10 years ago. And, despite its reputation as a coarse elixir best served hot, more and more of the sake available stateside is of increasingly high quality. "Maybe seven or eight years ago, good sakes did start coming in to the United States, and some of them were sufficiently interesting to wine drinkers that they were able to cross that gulf between sake and wine, which can be a deep gulf," says Chris Pearce, president of World of Sake imports, which represents nine sake breweries, primarily in northern Japan.

Sake brewers at work.  
 
Sake brewers convert the starch in grains of rice into sugar using a fungus called koji-kin, then convert the sugar into alcohol using a yeast. Different grades of sake have different polishing ratios—that is, a percentage of the rice grain that, by law, must be polished off before the brewing and fermenting begins. The polishing process strips off layers of protein and other compounds that can affect the flavor of the finished product. The more of the grain that's removed, the more delicately floral and fruity the sake. Junmaishu and honjozoshu sakes have the lowest polishing ratios, with a maximum of 70 percent of the grain left intact. "With the junmai sakes, you have to have basically made your peace with sake. They're more robust, more full-flavored, with more of the rice flavors, which are delicious if you're a junmai sake drinker, but are unfamiliar if you're a wine drinker," says Pearce.

Adding to junmai's robust flavor profile is the fact that 100% of the alcohol it contains come from rice. Some varieties of sake are augmented with a small amount of neutral distilled alcohol; for instance, while junmaishu and honjozoshu have the same polishing ratio, only the latter has added alcohol, leading to a smoother, slicker mouthfeel. Some sakes are left unpasteurized and exhibit a cloudy appearance. Some have rice solids and lees left behind from fermentation, which also creates a cloudy appearance. Some are aged for several years, giving them an aged sherry or Madeira-like character. (For a complete guide to the varieties of sake, read "Seduced by Sake" or get the quick summary in Sake Classifications.)

 
  Sake is available in numerous grades and styles.
 
Some Japanese restaurants will even carry seasonal sakes, like the summer draft varieties that sommelier Richard Hales puts on his wine list at New York's Asiate. "Most sakes are in the 14 percent to 15 percent alcohol range, but the summer drafts are a bit lower in alcohol, which is quite nice for a lunch pairing," says Hales, who typically has about 15 sakes on his list.

Wine

Of course, a well-chosen white wine is also a fine option for your Japanese restaurant experience. Naturally, the varietal you choose will depend on the weight and seasoning of the food at the end of your chopsticks. A light sashimi platter is not going to match with the same wine as that for an eel roll that's been seasoned with a rich, sweet glaze. "When it comes to raw fish, my first thought is always to pair it with a wine that is going to let the flavor of the fish shine through," says Rick Pitcher, the sommelier of New York's Tocqueville and 15 East restaurants, adding, "With something delicate, like fluke, you want to have a clean, high-acid white … you don't want any one characteristic of the wine to be too dominant." Sauvignon Blanc, Pinto Grigio and Sancerre would be good choices for lighter Japanese fare. For those dishes with a hint of characteristic Japanese sweetness and heat, wines with a bit of residual sugar, like Riesling and Chardonnay, should make good matches, provided their fruit is well-balanced by minerality and acidity; in the case of Chardonnay, avoid those made in a heavily-oaked style.

Following is a list of light-bodied Chardonnays, Sauvingon Blancs and Rieslings that have been recently rated by the Wine Spectator tasting department.

Wine Score Price
ST.-URBANS-HOF Riesling Kabinett Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Ockfener Bockstein 2005 93 $16
Fine cut and delineation to the lime, vanilla cream and slate flavors in this expressive Riesling. Balanced and vibrant, with a midpalate succulence that cruises to a long, mineral-, salt-, floral-tinged finish. Best from 2008 through 2018. 3,000 cases made. —B.S.
 
BALTHASAR RESS Riesling Kabinett Rheingau Hattenheimer Schützenhaus 2005 90 $14
Hints of petrol and almond give way to peach and creamy lemon flavors in this ripe kabinett. More compact than many of its peers at this stage. Give it time. Best from 2008 through 2018. 4,000 cases made. —B.S.
 
MULDERBOSCH Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch 2006 90 $20
A lean, crackling style, with lots of Key lime, gooseberry, straw and herb flavors. The long, tangy finish brings you back for more. Drink now. 23,000 cases made. —J.M.
 
RUSTENBERG Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2005 90 $20
Enticing aromas of fresh-cut melon, pineapple and ginger, with nicely focused mineral and dried fruit flavors and a long, stylish finish. Drink now through 2008. 4,500 cases made. —J.M.
 
VIÑA MONTES Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley Leyda Vineyard 2006 90 $16
Rich and stylish, with focused lemon verbena, lime, mineral and honeysuckle flavors that really glide through the finish. Lengthy and pure. Drink now. 20,000 cases made. —J.M.
 
WARWICK Sauvignon Blanc Simonsberg-Stellenbosch Professor Black 2006 90 $19
Bright and lemony, with racy gooseberry, grapefruit and floral notes. The long, pure finish really sails on nicely. Delicious. Drink now. 6,000 cases made. —J.M.
 
HENRI BOURGEOIS Sancerre La Porte du Caillou 2005 89 $19
Rich, with lots of lemon verbena, grapefruit and gooseberry flavors, followed by a broad, but minerally finish. Drink now. 8,500 cases made. —J.M.
 
ROBERT EYMAEL (MÖNCHHOF) Riesling QbA Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2005 89 $15
Vibrant and well-balanced, combining flavors of peach, apple and a hint of mineral with fresh acidity. Has a nice lingering finish. Drink now through 2012. 12,000 cases imported. —B.S.
 
SCHLOSS VOLLRADS Riesling QbA Trocken Rheingau 2005 88 $16
The richness and vibrant structure mesh nicely with lemon and elderflower notes in this reserved white. Delicate, ending with a mouthwatering tang. Drink now through 2008. 16,000 cases made. —B.S.
 
VERAMONTE Chardonnay Casablanca Valley Reserva 2005 88 $10
Nicely focused pear, apple and mineral flavors, with a clean, minerally finish. Fresh, unadorned style. Drink now. 20,000 cases made. —J.M.

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