Matching wines with Japanese food

Japanese food is all about the balance of flavours. It’s delicate, sweet, salty and delicious, all at once. And although sake is a great accompaniment, pairing your favourite wines with it can turn a good meal into a great one.

Every year, millions of people from all around the world visit Japan to enjoy its fascinating cities, beautiful landscape and, of course, to sample their famous food. Compared with food from further south in Asia, Japanese food is actually easier to pair with wine. You just need to understand the balance of flavours in both your dish and the wine.

 

Wine matching for Japanese food

One of the reasons why Japanese food is so delicious is the so-called fifth flavour – umami. It’s a strong, very savoury flavour that will always make you think of Japanese food.

It’s quite difficult to describe the taste as it isn’t directly one of the four flavours: salty, sour, bitter or sweet. Umami translates as delicious (umai) and essence (mi). Many Japanese dishes are driven by this flavour sensation, thanks to the seasonings that include miso, soy sauce and yuzu pepper.

Dishes like miso soup, katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked tuna), and accompaniments such as wasabi and soy sauce are great examples of umami rich foods. Enjoy them with a minerally Riesling or a tart and fresh Soave Classico – these are the wines that pick out and enhance the underlying flavour.

 

Wine matching for sashimi and sushi

Probably the first dishes most people think of when think about Japanese food are sashimi and sushi. Sashimi is specifically raw fish, sliced into very thin fillets. It’s served when it’s as fresh as possible along with shoyu (soy sauce) and wasabi. Sushi are the rolls of seasoned, vinegary rice wrapped with seaweed (nori). They are packed with savoury and salty fillings, which range from crab meat (kani), sea-urchin (uni), raw fish, freshwater eel (unagi) and egg omelette (tamago).

As they are both similar flavour-wise, these dishes can be matched with the same wines. Two good choices are the dry Alsace Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. They can really pull out the flavour of the fish itself and the seasonings that include pickled ginger and wasabi. Riesling also goes well with tuna sushi, known as maguro.

Another good choice to go with sushi and sashimi is Pinot Blanc, as it cuts through the flavours and complements the sweetness of the raw fish. If you prefer something less dry, then go with a creamy Chardonnay, preferably oaked to bring out the flavours.

 

Which wines go with tempura?

Tempura is also a very popular Japanese dish in the UK, thanks to its crispy, tasty flavour profile. It goes really well with lots of different wines, ranging from Chablis to Sauvignon Blanc and Champagne to Gruner Veltliner. Or you can try a light Rose to go with a big plate of mixed tempura for a delicious match.

For deep fried prawn (ebi), then a Chablis or Sancerre works best. For eel (anago), squid (ika) or scallops, you could try a drier Riesling or Chenin Blanc. Veggie tempura goes really well with a dry Muscat.

The next time you’re ordering in some Japanese food, or heading to a restaurant, leave the sake on the side and go for one of your favourite cellar wines instead.

Is it all over for traditional food and wine pairing?

Everyone knows that red wine goes with steak, and white with fish. These are the traditional food and wine matching rules that have been around for decades. However, Master of Wine Tim Hanni says that pairing of food and wine in this way is “pseudo-science”.

The American wine expert says: “A perfect wine pairing doesn’t exist. We’re doing a lot of damage in the way we’re matching wine and categorising it. We need to stop wine and food pairing.”

History of food and wine pairing

Historical records show that wine has long been served as a food accompaniment. Its early history also shows that wine was served in place of water, due to the latter’s unsanitary condition. At this time, there isn’t much evidence to show that there were strict wine and food pairing rules.

As culinary traditions developed throughout the world, so did wine-making. The kinds of wine pairings we consider ‘classic’, came from the relationship between a region’s food and the wine they make. For example, many leading wine regions in Europe had lamb as a staple meat. This leads to red wines from regions such as Rioja, Greece, Bordeaux, the Rhone and Provence being considered a classic pairing with lamb.

Old ideas have survived, including the adage “White wine with fish; Red wine with meat”. Its exact origins are unclear, but it’s been given as advice for centuries. The root of this is the idea of matching the body (or weight) of the wine with the weight of the food. The heavier the food (for example, meat), the heavier and therefore ‘red’ the wine should be.

Modern food and wine pairing

In more recent years, there has been much focus on food and wine pairings. The rules have expanded and interest in pairing wine increased. Sommeliers in restaurants exist to instruct on the perfect pairings with the establishment’s food.

This kind of interest started in the 1980s in the US, when the wine industry began advertising its products as a key part of the dining experience. Previously, they have been marketed simply as an alcoholic drink for consumption. Winemakers started to emphasise the foods their wines would go with and the media ran with the idea.

These days, you can find advice all over the place for the perfect food and wine pairing. And it looks as though the strictness of the traditional rules is relaxing. Many wine buyers and drinkers go with their instinct or choose what they like the taste of.

Speaking at a wine conference in New Zealand, Mr Hanni adds: “We need to celebrate the diversity of consumers, not make them feel stupid. You can serve sauvignon blanc with steak – why not? We need to get over the notion that food and wine grew up together. Food and wine matching is pseudo-science full of metaphors and misunderstandings.”

Effective wine matching for vegan dishes

A record-breaking number of people signed up for Veganuary 2018, with the campaign growing by 183%. Mid-way through Veganuary 2019, it’s likely that this will increase even more as the vegan trend takes hold. There are also an increasing number of wines available to buy online that are vegan, but what about matching them with food?

Effective wine matching easier than you think

There’s a lot of noise about going vegan in the media right now and included in this are vegan wines. However, it’s not really a new thing to have vegan wines available. Today there are lots of wines that are made in such a way that makes them suitable vegans, and they’ve been around for a while.

The main requirement for vegan wines is that they are made with no animal products used. The usual animal-derived products used in wine production include isinglass (fish bladder), milk protein and egg whites, which are used during the clarification process known as ‘fining’.

Look at the label

As with any other wine preference, the easiest way to tell whether a wine is vegan is to check the label. Many producers include the information clearly on the label, and online wine sellers will also specific. For people who are concerned about additives used in wine-making, there are also lots of organic wines available that are not fined during manufacturing.

When selecting vegan wine, it’s also important to consider the food you’re eating. If you are on a diet consisting of plant derivatives, and you’re not ingesting large portions of protein, then robust red wines aren’t necessary when matching wine with food.

Pairing with vegan food

While vegan dishes don’t have great portions of protein, obviously they can still have huge flavours. However, the flavours in vegan dishes don’t tend to tame the tannin in wine in the way that dairy and meat does.

With this in mind, vegans looking for the ideal wine for their dinner party should steer towards lighter wines. This is particularly the case if dishes are also light in carbs and consist of mostly vegetables, fruit and salad.

Light reds are always a good option, such as the frappato grape from Sicily. Frappato di Vittoria always produces grapey but light wines, which work well with healthy, fresh food. An Aussie red that works brilliantly with veg based dishes is Gertie Cabernet Franc Clare Valley, which has an exuberant, light flavour.

Effective wine matching is a lot to do with personal taste. What works for one vegan cook won’t work for another. However, the good news for vegans and vegetarians looking to exclude animal products from their tipple, is that there are loads of options available at all price points.

Which trends will dominate the wine industry in 2019?

Wine may be considered a luxury for many people, but the way the wine industry reacts to challenges often shapes the way consumers make their choices.

There are lots of reasons why people buy wine. For example, it’s the most gifted product at Christmas. But according to a 2018 study on the habits of wine consumes, 79% of wine buyers just like the taste, indicating they are not swayed by origin or ingredients. The survey also showed that 80% of people say that the cost is the main factor to consider when choosing wine.

Wine industry reacting to consumer tastes

Getting value for money will remain top of the list for the average consumer in 2019. As many countries are going through a period of political and economic changes, this inevitably affects the way people choose to spend their money. Often, this means more people spending less.

In the US, the relative strength of the dollar means certain German wines are more affordable. German Rieslings are likely to be popular, as buying trends pick up after a slow few years. Other great value options for UK and US buyers include rosé from French regions outside of Provence. For example, rosé from Loire, the Rhone Valley, Bordeaux and Gascony will be popular next year.

Environmental impact on wine-making

This year has been phenomenal for UK wine makers, with the biggest and best grape harvests likely to lead to a bumper vintage. And while this is a positive side-effect of rising temperatures, it also shows how much the wine industry must adapt to the new normal. Weather patterns are far more unpredictable, and this will continue. Winemakers are taking note of the changes in climate and their effects on the industry all over the world.

In California, winemaker Laura Diaz Munoz says that increases in temperature and the corresponding stress on water supply are among the environmental concerns for 2019: “Cooler regions are not cooler regions anymore.” She suggests that the industry will adapt by planting in new regions and changing varieties of grapes to match the climate changes.

Owner of Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards & Winery in California, Karin Warnelius-Miller agrees. She says: “In California, we are now living in a different reality than years past. Fires, smoke taint and drought – these are our dominant concerns for 2019 and into the future.”

Health and well-being

As well as the effect on wine-making from climate change and a drive towards value by consumers, 2019 will likely see a continuation of people balancing alcohol intake. Wine is being enjoyed more as part of a meal than as a standalone drink, and there is a corresponding interest in lower alcohol options. Journalist and expert on trends in the wine industry, Deborah Parker Wong says: “The wine industry’s commitment to education is exemplary and the emphasis on consuming wine with food is ever present.”

These are just some of the industry and consumer trends that will affect how people choose their wine as we move into 2019.

Which wines work well with veggie dishes?

While most wine pairing articles stick to the tried and true ‘red with meat, white with fish and chicken’ advice, what about veggie meals? With more people turning towards vegetarian dishes for elaborate mains, how to pair the best wine with your veggies is just as important as matching a red with your barbecue.

Should you choose red or white?

Again, unlike when pairing wines with meat dishes, there is no ‘wrong’ answer. While some people swear you should only have white with tofu and red with pasta, there really is no reason to restrict yourself.

Go with the robustness, acidity and sweetness in the wine, rather than worrying about archaic pairing rules. Maybe try a sparkling white with your tofu, or a full-bodied, heady white with your favourite pasta dish. Wine pairings can be as innovative as you like.

Don’t avoid rosè

You may instinctively shelve the rosè when looking for the perfect wine, but dry roses made from traditional red grapes like Syrah and Pinot Noir go brilliantly with all kinds of vegetarian dishes, and don’t overpower the freshness of the flavour.

Good vegetarian dishes are all about the ingredients and allow the natural flavours to come through. A good wine will help and complement the flavours and elevate the dish into something really special.

Think local

This is good advice even if you’re buying globally. Think about the kinds of foods you’re eating and remember that across Europe all wines and food grow together regionally. So, search for wines from similar regions as the food you’re cooking.

For example, a rich ragout laced with Mediterranean herbs will naturally pair beautifully with a hearty bottle from southern France, Italy or Spain. A cheese-based dish would be best served with a delicate wine from a colder growing region, including Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Having said that, don’t completely ignore Australian, South African, Argentinian or Californian wine just because you’re eating Italian or French food. Wines from similar climates as your ingredients can also work well.

Match like with like

If you’re having a three-course fancy dinner party, then go all out with the wine. But if it’s a humble evening pasta dish, then you don’t need to fork out for a vintage wine. For celebration meals, go for a finer vintage, as they stand up much better to complex flavours in food.

Also match delicate to delicate, and robust to robust. If you serve a subtly flavoured wine with a complex spicy dish, then it’s going to taste like nothing. Bold food needs a bold wine, which is why Zinfandels work so well with Mexican dishes, for examples.

There is no heritage for wines that go with Thai and Indian food, but it does go very well if you choose wisely. The ripeness and residual sugars in a sweet white wine will temper any heat and draw out other flavours in spicier dishes. For example, a German Riesling brings out the sweetness from vegetables used in Asian and Indian dishes.

Trust yourself

Don’t overthink your choice and remember that wine is very versatile. Your own built-in palate preference is just as important as expert advice, because taste is subjective with wine as it is with everything else.