Aging & Rice Varieties in Sparkling Sake

The sparkling sake category is like a box of chocolates, full of delicious caramel filled gooey ones and some unfortunate duds, left in the box until the very end. Maybe they’re orange liqueur filled or perhaps it’s the marzipan (which I love by the way) you choose to leave to the very end. Sparkling sake can also be delicious, full of brightness and life and there are…well, some are just tasty or maybe they’re too experimental. 

The Sparkling Sake Association of Japan (Awazake Association) is a group of sake producers who have joined forces to bring cohesion and awareness to this dynamic but confusing category. The Awazake Association (http://www.awasake.or.jp/en/) consists of 15 very forward thinking sake brewers and at the helm of this group is Noriyoshi Nagai, the 6th generation president of Nagai brewery in Gunma and the founding president of the association. He’s been experimenting for years on making traditional method (Champagne method) sparkling sake, with secondary fermentation in bottle, hand riddling and bottling with a cork. Like any innovator, he says “I failed 700 times before we got it right”. 

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We hosted Nagai san and Matsumi san (his export director) in Vancouver for a few days in April where we got to taste the Mizubasho Pure, Nagai brewery’s traditional method sparkling sake made with Yamadanishiki rice. They also make a sparkling sake from Yukihotaka rice (a regionalized variety of Koshihikari rice), which we tasted alongside the Pure. 

In the lineup, we had three sparkling sakes: 1) Mizubasho Pure from the current BY (brew year) 2) Mizubasho Pure from 3 years ago (thanks to Roger Maniwa for sharing!) and 3) Mizubasho Yukihotaka (current). 

Here’s how they were showing:

  1. Mizubasho Pure (current): fresh notes of melon, crisp apples, slightly yeasty and rice-y. Soft but persistent bubbles with good texture on the palate. Very delicate and clean. 
  2. Mizubasho Pure (3 years old): some aged notes on the nose, caramel and oxidation. Less bubbles, drier on the palate and clean finish. Layered and complex. 
  3. Mizubasho Yukihotaka (current): bigger nose, tree fruits and melons. Bigger on the palate with more energy and density. 

*all three are polished to the same percentage and brewed in the same way. 

It’s important to note that the Mizubasho Pure base sake has changed over the years. The sake from 3 years ago used to be made to +3 SMV (sake meter value) while the current Pure is at around -5 SMV. The objective now is to make a more delicate, softer sparkling sake. Personally, I think the drier, aged version could be more interesting for food pairings while the current style is more finessed and is delicious on it’s own or paired with delicate dishes like raw oysters, white seafood or Chawanmushi. The aged Pure would be interesting to try with more intense fish like Aji or dishes seasoned with dashi. 

The Yukihotaka sparkling is made from a localized version of Koshihikari, a very famous eating rice. This rice used to be only available for the Emperor and if you’re in Kawaba village (where Nagai brewery is located) so it’s as fancy as it gets. Nagai san decided he wanted to show the expression of this highly regionalized rice because it’s only available in his village (or the Emperor’s kitchen). It’s the rice he’s chosen to show terroir, a sense of place. We found this sake brighter, with more energy and a richer mouthfeel. Yamadanishiki is easier to polish, with a big shinpaku (starch heart) whereas the Yukihotaka has no shinpaku. This means that there’s more fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins left in the rice when the brewer is using Yukihotaka or any table rice. What you get as a result is more flavour and potentially complexity. 

What we’re going to keep seeing for a while most likely is a large range of styles and continued experimentation in the sparkling sake category. The good news is that they’re getting better and better with more knowledge and science, which can only mean good things for everyone. 

Christmas in Japan = KFC?

The holidays is a time of year when family and friends gather around – what else – food. I grew up with roast beef (my favourite) alongside big bowls of white rice and soy sauce at the dinner table on Christmas Eve. Awkward conversations, ever-so drunken uncles and aunts, everyone’s got memories of this time of year: the good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever your story may be, eating and drinking is probably a part of it.

I’ve seen holiday dinners with pierogies, cabbage rolls, sushi and my favourite, KFC. In Japan, turkeys aren’t easy to find. Turkey legs or breasts maybe, but certainly not the whole bird. In the 1970s, Kentucky Fried Chicken found a way to market the Japanese obsession with all things American during the holidays by promoting buckets of KFC fried chicken as a Christmas treat, along with a snowy-white Christmas cake.

You can pre-order these dinners, which now include a bottle of sparkling wine. Maybe it sounds strange but maybe they were onto something; maybe they were a little ahead of the times, as hipster restaurants have sprung up in some of our favourite hipster neighbourhoods around the world serving up fried chicken and grower-Champagne. Whether you’re a Juke Chicken (YVR), Church’s Chicken or KFC fan, here are a few beverages to accompany your crispy, salty drumstick or two:

Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2015 – not quite sparkling but the way this eccentric brewery pasteurizes the sake leaves a little tingle on the palate. Delicious with a salty, not so spicy fried chicken recipe.

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Tengumai Yamahai Junmai – brewed using the powers of natural fermentation and without adding lactic acid, this sake is salty, mouth-watering  and food-perfect. Drink slightly chilled for lots of acidity and umami. An easy pick for all things fried.

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Hubert Paulet Premier Cru 2005 Rose – a grower Champagne producer who sells half their grapes to Billecart-Salmon, this elegant but nervy rose is made up of mostly Chardonnay, with a splash of Pinot Meunier. Fine bubbles with strawberries and soft herbs on the palate goes great with fried chicken knuckles at dim sum.

Friday (barely) Sake Review : Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2011

IMG_5595I think it’s only appropriate that I write about this sake this week, as Kuheji san was visiting us in Canada recently. It’s a brewery that goes back to 1647 but as the 15th generation owner and head of the company, Kuheiji Kuno is shaking things up…

Sake, for hundreds of years, has been said, should taste the similar (if not the same), year after year. There is a ‘house style’, kind of like non-vintage Champagne. So the brewer’s skill was in being able to recreate that profile no matter what conditions you were faced. Kuheiji, on the other hand, questioned this notion and said that he’s going to make sakes that taste different, depending on the vintage. The vintage indicated is for the rice harvest year and there is no blending. Since 2008, all of the Kuheiji sakes are vintaged, making it the only brewery that has vintage declarations for all products.

Respecting the past, heritage and legacy of sake making, yet not afraid to question what others have not, Kuheiji is a frontier in an often conservative industry.

Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2011

Specs:

Rice: 100% Yamadanishiki

Polish: 50%

Alcohol: 16%

Vintage: 2011

Sake Meter Value (SMV): N/A not indicated, as the brewery does not believe in giving this information to the public. They believe it is misleading and unnecessary.

Tasting notes: Floral, with notes of Summer berries, mangoes. Medium richness on palate, medium acidity. Concentrated fruit with medium finish.

Has aged well, the elements (alcohol, fruit, acidity, etc.) have mellowed, have integrated. Aging sake is for another post!

 

 

Kozaemon Sakura Sake

I’ve been waiting to taste the Kozaemon Sakura Sake like an eager, giddy child on Christmas morning and today, finally, it happened. It’s a seasonal release and only available in Spring, right after it’s been pressed. We were able to scoop up a mere 10 cases for the entire province but what a treat it is to be able to have a nama nama sake outside of Japan!

In a way, it’s akin to Beaujolais Nouveau but minus the crazy, cheesy marketing it is unfortunately subjected to. Only available once a year, right out of the tank, the Kozaemon Sakura Sake is completely unpasteurized and fresh as Spring. As you can see in the glass, it has some ‘ori’ lees left in, adding a layer of bright fruit and texture.

Specs:

Rice: Shinano (Nagano) Miyamanishiki

Rice Polish Ratio: 50%

Alcohol: 16.5%

Acidity: 1.6

Tasting Notes: Right out of the fridge, there’s notes of melon and pineapple on the nose but it’s DEFINITELY nama, with a gamey, wildness. As Kozaemon sakes are, it’s bold and unapologetic about expressing it’s personality. There’s also a slight grapefruit pith bitterness on the nose and that’s more prevalent on the palate. A good amount of weight and richness but not overwhelming. As it warms up, the elements come together and become more cohesive. The aromatics are bold but I always enjoy Kozaemon’s sakes as the weight and acidity support it. No perfume-y nonsense that doesn’t match the palate – we’ve all had sake like that, right? Acidity is key; refreshes the palate and makes you want to drink more.

Miyamanishiki rice tends to give a little bit of smokiness as it warms up (learned that from Kozaemon himself!) and it adds a nice element to the sake. What to have it with? How about BC Spot Prawns? The heads deep fried with a bit of ground pepper (white or black) would do nicely. Or Thai green curry? This would stand up to it. A fun, dangerously easy sake. If you’re lucky enough to find it, enjoy it, as it won’t be around for long! But don’t worry, there’s always next year.

Where to find this sake:

Shuraku Sake BarMinamiMikuZen Japanese RestaurantViti Wine and Lager