Red Burgundy is an ideal wine to serve with Japanese Cuisine.
By Louis Marmon
Gazette Newspapers March 7, 2012
Sake is the classic accompaniment to Japanese food. Often called rice wine, it actually is “brewed” from rice that has been “polished” to expose the underlying starch. Quality varies depending upon the amount of polishing and whether or not alcohol is added to develop underlying flavors. But there are other choices. One of my favorite pairings with Japanese cuisine is a red Burgundy. However, it wasn’t always that way.
A few years ago, Diasuke Utagawa, the owner of Washington, D.C.’s first Sushi bar, became upset upon reading an article that said serving Burgundy with Japanese food was a waste of wine. Experience and training told him otherwise. So he contacted the noted wine exporter, Becky Wasserman, who arranged for him to come to her home in the heart of the Burgundy region to prepare a Japanese meal and pair it with the local wines. This occurred before there was a single Japanese restaurant in the area and most, if not all, of the local winemakers who were invited to the meal had never tried Japanese food. Initially greeted with suspicion, the menu and wine parings quickly impressed the skeptical Burgundian crowd.
Today, Burgundy wines, as well as domestic versions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are found on many Japanese restaurant menus. “Japanese cuisine and Burgundy are very similar,” Diasuke remarked during a dinner at his Sushi-ko restaurant. “They are based upon subtraction.”
Becky and her husband, Russell, joined us for dinner at Diasuke’s restaurant as part of Becky’s 30th anniversary celebration as a Burgundy importer. Also attending was the owner of Domaine Alain Burguet located in Gevrey Chambertin, along with his wife Dominique, who also is a co-director of Becky’s firm, “Le Serbet.”
Diasuke continued: “Much like Ikebana, where the inherent splendor of a flower is fully revealed by removing anything that may obstruct the full manifestation of its beauty, Japanese cuisine removes the extraneous. Not to force the food to become something that it isn’t, but to expose its fundamental beauty.”
The synergy of Burgundy and Japanese cuisine was confirmed by Burguet and his wife. “We were initially suspicious,” she explained. “But we and our friends were completely convinced within a few bites. He used only local produce that he bought the day he made the dinner and showed us how well the food and wine worked together.”
Diasuke said that in contrast to Chinese cooking, which adds flavors by adding ingredients, “the Japanese do it by taking the smallest, simplest aspects and refining those flavors. This is like making Burgundy, where the wines are defined not by what the winemakers do to it, but by what they don’t do. There is not any manipulation. They let the grapes speak for themselves.”
But there is more to this match than matters of preparation. The silkiness of a Burgundy complements the similar texture of sushi and sashimi. And the characteristic Burgundian earthiness is a perfect complement to the savory umami found in many Japanese dishes. Another dinner guest brought a bevy of mature Burgundies that Diasuke flawlessly paired with his kitchen creations.
The wines ranged from a soft, lush Domaine Vincent Girardin Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1er Cru to a more powerful Domaine Alain Hudelot-Noellat Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru and included other distinctive wines from Morey-St-Denis, Charmes-Chambertin and Vosne Romanee. Each course either complemented or pleasantly contrasted with the flavors, style and aromas of the paired wine providing an education on the culinary marriage of two divergent cultures. As one guest remarked during dessert: “Perhaps we are not as different as we thought.”