An Expert Explains Why Sushi Rolls With Cream Cheese Are The Only Ones That Pair With Red Wine

As far as sushi questions go, pairing wine with the meal is a hot topic. If you prefer red wine, you may have resigned yourself to the theory that your favorite Merlot just won't do when you go out for yellowtail nigiri (one of the most popular types of tuna in Japanese cuisine).

Many experts agree that the tannins and bolder nature of red wines are simply too powerful for the delicate flavors of sushi, and that diners should instead opt for an acidic white wine, sake, or a crisp beer. But, as it turns out, reaching for red might actually be a smart and delicious choice for certain types of the classic Japanese dish.

Nicki McTague, president of Denver-based winery and tasting room Infinite Monkey Theorem, believes that if your sushi includes cream cheese, you can go ahead and roll out the red wine carpet, so to speak. During a discussion with Food Republic, McTague said, "Rarely do I recommend red wines with fish, but when you're incorporating something like cream cheese to a classic American-style roll, the answer is Pinot Noir. The tannins won't stand a chance against this roll; they'll simply bring out the balance!"

When it comes to red wine, Pinot Noir is on the lighter end of the spectrum anyway and typically has mild tannins and a fruit-forward nature. This helps it both compliment the thick cream cheese, and not overwhelm the flavors of any other fish or vegetable included in the maki.

Bold red wines can overwhelm delicate sushi

When people talk about tannins in wine, they are referring to the naturally occurring compounds that exist in grape skins and stems. Tannins give your mouth an astringent, dry sensation, and too much of them can overwhelm the flavors of delicate foods, like fish and shellfish. This is why the general "rule" is to avoid pairing sushi with bold red wines (which are often high in tannins). 

But as expert Nicki McTague advises, lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Beaujolais can work in some situations. These varietals can handle the mouth-coating nature of cream cheese and can also complement oily or fatty fishes, like tuna and salmon. So, if cream cheese in sushi isn't your thing, try the wine with rolls that feature these types of fish.

Sushi rolls that come covered in a creamy sauce or topped with a mayonnaise-based drizzle will also do well with Pinot Noir, as the texture in the mouth will mimic that of cream cheese. For other, lighter types of sushi rolls, hand rolls, and nigiri, stick with lighter wines if you want to fully experience the flavors of what you're eating. If you're not a fan of white wines, consider a dry rose. This type of wine has the body of whites but often carries the fruit character of reds, giving you the best of both worlds, and acts as a winning partner to sushi.