Sushi Time

Sushi Time

Wine of the WeekOroya 2005Spain, $13.95, Vintages April 14, #25775(score 86)Created by Spanish giant Freixnet, this seemingly simple dry white was put together from native Spanish varieties —airen (60%), macabeo (30%) and muscat (10%)—specifically to match with sushi, as spelled out on the label both in English and Japanese. It’s rather innocuous when sipped solo, with vague floral, melon and citrus flavours set in a slim, dry yet harmonious frame. Well integrated acidity and alcohol forms the bedrock of the wine and the switch that turns it on is sushi, as discovered below. It really works.

I’m always a bit skeptical about concept wines because most are dreamt up by marketers instead of winemakers. On the other hand I love the consumer-friendly notion of creating wines for specific styles of cuisine, an idea whose time has certainly come, and which the wine industry as a whole has been amazingly slow to grasp. In the days when European regional wines ruled the world it was simple enough to match local wines with regional cuisine. (I like to theorize that local cuisine adapted itself to local wines, not vice versa). With New World wines emphasizing grape instead of place of origin, however, consumers have largely been left to guess about food matches, or trust glib, often untested recommendations on back labels—or from wine writers. The vacuum could easily be filled by scientifically building wines, via trial and error, to go with specific culinary styles or preparations.

Which is exactly what a young Japanese oenologist named Yoko Sato did over a one-year period at Freixnet, in order to create Oroya, being released this Saturday at Vintages. She began with aromatic northern Spanish grapes like albarino and verdejo, thinking their acidity and intense, almost floral, flavours would work. After all, aside from sake and beer, aromatic, nervy, slightly sweet riesling is the wine most often recommended with sushi. But she found the acidity and character of these grapes too strong, so she went for a base to the more bland airen, Spain’s most widely planted white variety dominantly found in the huge expanses of La Mancha south of Madrid. She combined that with high acid but rather neutral flavoured macabeo (alias viura found in great white Riojas), then added a dash of the floral muscat to provide just a bit of bloom.

I put Oroya to the test this week by ordering sushi takeout from Sushi 2 Go, a reliable mini-chain with the restaurants in Etobicoke. We ordered a sunomono salad (seaweed, cucumber, shrimp), assorted tempura and an 18-piece nigiri and maki platter.

We opened the Oroya, an off-dry riesling and an intense New World sauvignon blanc in order to do some comparisons. Yoko Sato was essentially right—the more aromatic, intense wines simple overpowered the sushi. The essence of this cuisine is purity, subtlety and fine balance of starch, sweetness, acidity, so why drink something that doesn’t respect all that? The powerful sauvignon blanc in particular was almost cruelly assertive. The riesling was better, providing palate cleansing freshness and a pleasant sweetness that helped balance the wasabi element especially. But again, its fruit/grape character was a touch domineering, robbing the sushi’s subtlety.

The mild-mannered, impeccably balanced Oroya walked an almost perfect line, allowing sushi flavours to express, while not succumbing to the stronger elements like soya, wasabi and pickled ginger. The latter is so strong as to ruin almost any wine, by the way, but Oroya took it on; softening its impact without clashing. Indeed, this ability to absorb and not change all the flavours of sushi, while still providing both refreshment and warm comfort, is the secret to Oroya’s success.

Oroya, by the way is not a Japanese word. It’s an archaic Spanish word for a type of basket once used to transport goods across rivers. In this case, it successfully transports flavours across the oceans. Nicely done!