South African Shiraz & Unagi

Food & Drink - September 7th, 2009

by J.K. Whelehan

The dog days of summer are here—the time of the year for indulging in grilled eel for stamina. And what to drink with your unagi no kabayaki? You’ve probably heard the basic rule—dry white wine goes with fish or white meat. Dry red goes with game or red meat, which creates a quandary in this case.

The Chablis or Gavi that are ideally paired with sashimi and shellfish would be overpowered by grilled eel because of the typical ingredients used in the basting sauce: soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. Also, the accompanying sansho pepper tends to make wine taste bitter, especially delicate whites. By itself, eel is oily, and when grilled with a sweet basting sauce, it is better matched with a full-bodied red with softer, rounder tannins, and go easy on the sansho. What you need is something with stamina—a full-bodied Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape, or how about a good South African Shiraz or Syrah?

This year marks the 350th anniversary of the first wine produced at the Cape, and with the World Cup around the corner, now seems like a good time to explore. Shiraz, a leading varietal in this country, when aged in oak can have a smoky or roasted character, which helps it pair with unagi. When eel is grilled over charcoal it drips fat, causing smoke, which in turn impregnates it with a similar smoky character.

In addition, sweet and savory food makes wine seem drier or less sweet. As the Shiraz of South Africa are cultivated in warmer regions, this typically gives them body, fruitiness, high alcohol, and a glycerine ‘fatness,’ characteristically with additional peppery spicy notes, countering the savory flavors of the eel and creating an ideal match.

You might also try experimenting with a top drawer Pinotage (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut) that is truly a South African variety, though it may not work quite so well, que será, será.

J.K. Whelehan is a Tokyo-based wine expert and writer, as well as co-author of the best-selling book Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, published by Kodansha and available from Amazon.