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. 

Hanami – Drinking Ideas

If you’re in Japan in the Spring, there are a few things you should be doing. First, there are the cherry blossoms. Everyone talks about them because they’re like nothing you’ve seen before and you should go see them. Better yet, have a picnic under the blooming trees because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. You can even drink under the trees so there will be people getting horribly drunk. Don’t be one of those.

The second thing you have to do is to have fresh sake. In the spring time breweries are busy pressing their first batches of fresh, juicy nama (unpasteurized) sakes. The first tanks of the season are started around November and they’re ready to press by this time of the year. In Canada, we’re lucky to have three sake producers who all bottle nama sakes so that we can have them all year round. There are also a few available from Japanese breweries that are shipped in specifically for this occasion, so make sure to keep your eyes open for them! They’re only available for a few months.

Lucky for you, you don’t have to choose between the two because you can actually do them together at a hanami. “Hanami 花見” translates to looking at the flowers and it’s a tradition to eat and drink under the trees with friends, family or fellow colleagues. Whether it’s a homemade bento box or a few snacks from the convenience store, make sure you have some beer, sake or maybe even some bubbles.

Unfortunately in Canada, we’re not allowed to drink outside (legally). But I’ve picked a few of my favourites to have under the cherry blossoms in High Park in Toronto or Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver. A blanket in your living room does the trick too!

Amabuki Strawberry Yeast – from Shiga prefecture in southern Japan, this brewery specializes in using yeast from flowers to brew sake. Are you one of those people not really using their university degree? Sotaro Kinotshita, the president of the brewery, did his degree in sake brewing and his research topic was using yeasts derived from plants, which is precisely what he started doing after he took over with his brother. Pretty, light and juicy, with a soft acidity and freshness that’s unmistakably nama.

Kozaemon Sakura Sake – very lightly cloudy, this roughly filtered sake looks like white sakura petals are falling from the trees. It’s a seasonal sake and is shipped to Vancouver only once a year. Don’t be fooled by the Gokyakumangoku rice, usually known for making sake on the leaner side. Nakashima Brewery’s signature style is bold and personality driven. Never a shy sake! (by allocation)

Somdinou Blanc Jove – made with mostly white Grenache and a splash of Macabeu. Textured, fresh and full of acidity, this wine from the Terra Alta region in Spain is perfect with ceviche, BC spot prawns (if you can wait that long) or some traditional chirashi sushi, which looks more like vinegar rice salad with lots of bright colours.

2005 Hubert Paulet Rosé (Champagne)– I know, I know, it’s a little predictable, rose Champagne and cherry blossoms. But it’s delicious and serious (and seriously delicious) and you need to find yourself a place to pour this lovely Pinot Meunier rose from Rilly-la-Montagne into a red solo cup and maybe some siu mai dumplings and bbq duck for the perfect picnic.

WSET Sake Level 1 in Canada!

It’s finally here! Earlier last year, WSET launched the Level 3 Award in Sake and while level 1 was available in test markets in London and the US since this summer, it’s just made it to Canada. I’m teaching it in Vancouver and Toronto in the next couple of months. If you’re in or close to either city, it’s a terrific introduction or review into the beautiful world of sake! Because it’s me, I’ll be covering food pairings with REAL food!

Details below:

Vancouver – The Art Institute of Vancouver is offering a WSET sake level 1 course for the first time in Canada, taught by Mariko Tajiri. It’s a 1-day course on Saturday, January 14th and it’s perfect for anyone who works with sake in restaurants or retail, or those who just want to learn more! Brewing basics, sake service, classifications and food pairings will all be covered.

Date: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
Time: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm
Location: The Art Institute of Vancouver
(2665 Renfrew Street
Vancouver, British Columbia)
Price: $349
Contact: Angela at 604.989.8009 or alandon@aii.edu to book your spot now.

The Art Institute also offers gift certificates for Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers…the gift of learning keeps on giving!

Toronto – This session will be taught at IWEG (Independent Wine Education Guild) and the enriched food and sake pairing component will be delivered by instructor Mariko Tajiri, providing the opportunity to experience key pairing principles through interactive tasting.    Students will have access to the Study Guide upon receipt of tuition and are required to read through the material before attending class in order to be familiar with content and participate in activities.  There will be a short break midday for refreshment. Glassware provided.

Date: Saturday, February 25th, 2017
Time: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
Location: IWEG
(211 Yonge St. Suite 501 Toronto, Ontario)
Price: $360 **Special industry pricing available. Please enquire!
Contact: 416.534.2570

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.