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.
The pride of any self-respecting wine dude is the wine cellar. Even beer geeks are exploring the possibilities and potential of cellaring. Cellaring being the idea of putting aside a few bottles that will “reward with time”, ie. mature into a more complex and interesting beast. A practice most familiar to the wine world. So how does sake fare after a few years in the cellar?
Usually, not too well. Firstly, the compounds in wine that give it the ability to age are either not present at all or not present in a large enough capacity to enable effective ageing. Tannin is essential to the ageing process of red wine, coming from the grape skin, vine and the barrels used for maturation. In white wines that have the ability to age, a good acid level is required. Sake contains no tannin and has far less acidity than white wine leaving it at something of a disadvantage to start. So why do it? And does anybody drink it?
It seems the answer is “yes”. Ageing sake has been done for many years and there are quite a few breweries out there that make ko-shu 古酒 (old sake) or choki jukuseishu長期熟成酒 (long term matured sake). It is out there but it isn’t particularly common. However, a recent article on a popular Japanese news site hints at a possible renewed interest in aged sake. The article refers in particular to a bar in Osaka called Jukuseikoshu Bar Quon (try saying that after a few glasses of sake). A bar that has found its niche with a menu of around 10-20 aged sakes. Fans of the old brew refer to the soft rounded flavours and the reduced effects of hangovers(?). For now, I’ll hold off on my skepticism regarding reduced hangovers but round, smooth flavours I can understand. I should admit I haven’t had a lot of aged sake. At least not a lot of sake that was meant to be aged. Unfortunately, the sake you find on the bottleshop shelf is often koshu by default. Buying sake for consumption at home doesn’t seem to have quite taken off in Australia yet, so till then check the dates on the bottle when shopping about.
Dates? Did somebody say dates? Yes, if you check out the bottle of sake nearest you, you will find a date printed somewhere on the bottle or label that specifies the day the bottle was shipped. Most sake is stored at the brewery until they think it’s ready, so the date reflects when it left the brewery as opposed to when it was bottled.
So what can you expect from aged sake? It depends on whether it is koshu that has been designed by the brewery to be drunk as an aged product or whether it is sake that was probably intended to be drunk fresh but has been kept for a while and has become old sake. Deliberately aged koshu can often have sherry like aromas, a dessert like sweetness and woody aromas. They can be delicious and rewarding. Sake that is just plain old can be a funky, dull and show aromas and flavours more resembling cooking sake. but in my opinion, if you are looking for what makes sake great-drink it fresh. Within a year is best but given the slow turnover of sake in Australia two years sometimes has to be settled for. I guess what I’m getting at is there isn’t much point getting hung up on ageing sake. Age your wines by all means but drink your sake as quick as you can. A sake cellar sounds nice in theory but keep the turnover high. Ask a brewer and you’ll find almost all of them will recommend you drink their sake fresh. If you’re concentrating on ageing and what will cellar well, you’re missing the point.
So if you spot something labelled as koshu, by all means give it a go, but anything else I’d be drinking up as quick as you can; just how the brewer wanted you to.