Monthly Archives: October 2012
Three Shades of Ageing
In the wine world one of things that defines a great wine is its ability to age well; to morph into a wine of great depth and new character. The wines that attract the highest prices are invariably wines with great ability to age.
Not so much in the world of sake. Although sake can age to a degree and can be interesting, it isn’t really what it’s all about. The market for aged sake (called jukusei shu or koshu) is very, very small in Japan. The interest for it in western countries far exceeds the interest for it in Japan. It’s probably fair to say that this stems from the wine culture of countries like Australia, the UK and the USA. Sommeliers of high-end restaurants are often the ones setting the trends for the rest of us so it’s not surprising that when it comes to sake, one of the things they are most interested in is the ageing potential.
Today I’ve got three very different sake that show three very different results of ageing and also show perhaps how ageing sake can be somewhat inconsistent and unpredictable.
Firstly from Hiroshima the highly regarded Taketsuru’s Aigamo Nohoumai Junmai. Aigamo Nouhou is a style of rice cultivation used by some farmers where a particular breed of duck (known as aigamo) are introduced into the rice fields to live for the harvest. The ducks live a good life in the watery rice fields eating all the pests and insects meaning chemicals and pesticides are mostly unnecessary.
After the harvest the ducks are rewarded for their hard work by being eaten.
Brewed in 2005, this sake is usually held back by the brewery for about five years. So it is definitely older than most sake you’d come across. To say this sake is a little unusual would be a mild understatement. Firstly it throws quite a bit of sediment. This is not the chunky rice solids we get in nigorizake, but grit and yeast cells that haven’t been fine filtered out that form and fall to the bottom of the bottle. No effect on flavour but not real pretty. Already showing some serious golden colour for its (relatively) young age, aromas of musty cheese, some fino sherry, a bit of almond and hints of vinegar. Probably not the kind of aromas you’d look for in a fine wine. On the palate it is quite upfront and robust with almost tannic like dryness and some tight acidity still holding it together nicely, but the musty vibe would turn a few people off I think. Call me crazy but I would recommend this sake with Chinese food rather than Japanese food. Also worth noting this sake was underwhelming chilled, not bad at room temperature and spot on warmed. I find most aged sake lean towards room temperature or warmed, but it’s always up to whatever works for you.
Next up is Hyaku Rakumon Junmai Koshu from the ancient Japanese capital, Nara. Brewed in 1992, this is getting older than a lot of wines can manage to reach. Another Junmai and again unfiltered but no sediment this time. Definitely richer in colour now but you probably wouldn’t guess there’d be 13 years between them. Aromas of honey and nuts (Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes!) and some florals all suggesting a sweeter flavour perhaps. And it is. A softer, rounded sweet mouthfeel with some nutty astringency pulling it back from sweetness overload. A really pleasant sake. This time I found room temperature showed this sake at it’s best.
Finally for something completely different, Ouroku’s Kohaku no Shizuku, brewed in 1994 from Shimane prefecture. Now, you’d expect this to be around the ball-park of the Hyaku Rakumon with only two years separating them but take a look at this fella! Really shows how aged sake can go very different routes. Almost like soy sauce in appearance (and aroma!) with some ruby edges, the rich viscosity of the sake becomes apparent as it clings to the side of the glass. Aromas of cinnamon, burnt caramel, toast and raisins, somewhat reminiscent of Pedro Ximenex sherry. Drunk chilled it shows dessert wine-like sweetness on the palate, rich and decadent. Honestly, you’d never guess this was made from rice, really quite extraordinary. And to test the PX comparison I couldn’t resist pouring some over ice-cream and it worked like magic!
The bad news is only the first sake, Taketsuru is available in Australia.
Now, you can’t expect to grab a bottle of sake throw it in the cellar for twenty years and expect it to turn ourn like PX sherry, it just aint gonna happen. It all comes down to what the brewer was trying to do. All of these sake were bought recently, I didn’t age them myself. Which is why if you are interested in aged sake it’s best to pick up sake that has been pre-aged. The brewer will know when it’s ready. At the end of the day aged sake can be a cool thing but like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re gonna get. I’m sure that’s what Forrest Gump was talking about.
A rather suggestive title for today’s post maybe and one that’s probably best not to google.
So what am I referring to? Well, sake goes through a few processes once the fermentation and pressing has taken place. The sake is usually charcoal (or carbon) filtered, pasteurized, diluted with water and pasteurized again. But increasingly popular is a style known as Muroka (無濾過) Nama (生) Genshu (原酒). Translating to unfiltered, unpasteurized, undiluted, it could be said this is sake in it’s pure unadulterated form.
Firstly, the unfiltered part refers to the fine filtering process not the pressing stage where the liquid is separated from the chunky bits that give us cloudy sake (nigorizake). When sake is fine filtered it cleans the sake up giving it it’s clear, pristine appearance. While this pretties the sake up, it also removes a bit of flavour. Again, when sake is pasteurized it is heated up to kill any bacteria or organisms that have survived the fermentation process. But again some flavour will also be sacrificed as collateral damage for a pure stable sake. Finally, when the sake is cut with water to reduce the alcohol content, the flavour will be thinned out somewhat. Now, saying all this probably provides a good argument for running out and grabbing all the muroka nama genshu you can find. After all, this is the real sake – untouched! True, but it’s important to remember these processes are done for a reason. As much as Muroka Nama Genshu sake can be bright, fresh and upfront with lots of punch and flavour they can also be a bit over the top at times.
I love a good namazake; great as an aperitif; fruity, vibrant and fantastic with fresh seafood in summer. For some the yeasty pungency that can sometimes be present can be a bit off-putting, a little reminiscent of the smell of white rind cheese. The other problem with unpasteurized sake is storage. In its unpasteurized state the sake can be volatile. If not kept at cool temperatures to stunt any activity from any organisms still not completely dead from the fermentation process secondary fermentation could occur or just throw the whole sake flavour profile off kilter leaving you with a stinky, pungent sake that won’t be particularly pleasant.
Genshu is a fairly niche market. Again, the reason most brewers dilute a sake down is to balance out the flavours. So if a sake is not cut with water as in the case of Genshu it can sometimes be a bit boozey or hot. Then again, a skilled brewer can sometimes bring the ferment to such a good balance that the alcohol level doesn’t creep to high and dilution isn’t necessary. So even though the sake may sit around the standard level of 16%ABV it is actually Genshu. However in these cases it often won’t be advertised on the label. More often that not, if it says Genshu on the label it is higher than normal in alcohol (19-20% or so) and they want you to know it.
All of this gibber jabber brings us to Mutemuka and their Nama Genshu. Hailing from Kochi Prefecture (a personal fave) these guys are one of only a handful of certified organic sake breweries. Given the hassles involved with shipping namazake refrigerated we don’t see a whole lot of them here in Australia but Sydney importers Black Market Sake have quite a few and I was happy to see this one in good condition.
Coming in at 18%ABV this isn’t the highest of the high-octane genshu mentioned above but it’s up there and interestingly doesn’t mention anywhere on the Japanese label that it is in fact a Genshu.
Mutemuka Muroka Nama Genshu 18°
Kochi Prefecture. Seimaibuai 60% for the Koji and 70% for the kakemai (added rice).
Like many namazake it has definite yeasty characters on the nose and hints of strawberries and cream with some nice cocoa powder in the background that comes to the front more as it warms. Quite full-bodied and rich in flavour as you’d expect the alcohol is nicely in check. An umami-rich, bold sake that will please those looking for a sake to jump out at them rather than some of the more subtle styles. Good to see some quality namazake making it to our shores.
Not found in Queensland as far as I know but keep an eye out for it in Sydney and Melbourne restaurants and even a couple of bottle shops like Annandale Cellars. Not cheap though at about $80.
So, it’s a bit late but Monday October 1st was Sake Day, or Nihonshu no Hi as it would be called in Japan.
Why October 1st? Well, there are a couple of reasons and uber sake sensei John Gauntner covers them concisely in his blog so I’ll leave the explanation to him. For me, I like the reasoning that October 1st marks the beginning of the new brewing season. Rice has been harvested, breweries spring cleaned, machinery oiled and polished all ready for “go time” so we can all look forward to our favourite rice brew.
It was in fact the Japan Sake and Shochu Brewers Association that picked the day in 1978 so it’s still a relatively recent addition to the calendar and it isn’t widely recognized outside of the sake world…yet. Obviously here in Australia it goes by with even less of a kerfuffle and I feel a pinge of guilt for not doing anything in particular myself this year other than have a quiet drink.
But as they say; there’s always next year. Hope you enjoyed a glass on Sake Day. But if you didn’t, don’t worry you should never need an excuse to enjoy sake all year round!