Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A rarity: vintage-dated sake

Katsutaro Honda holds "Garden of Eternity"
(Today is sake day! Read this story here and a non-related sake story at Palate Press.)

Most sake is not vintage-dated. Breweries don't want vintage variation; they strive for the same taste every year. They also don't want consumers turning up their noses at sake that has been gathering dust on the shelf.

In most cases, I recommend that you do exactly that, because 95% of sakes go downhill after about a year.

This is about an exception: Chiyonosono "Garden of Eternity" Junmai Daiginjo ($80) from Kumamoto prefecture.

Brewery chairman Katsutaro Honda is so pleased with the effect aging has on this sake that he started sealing bottles of it with corks 25 years ago.

"I used (cork) to play with," he said. "Everyone said, 'What are you doing?' "

Honda already bottle-aged Chiyonosono far longer than the industry average, so it was a natural progression. He wondered: What would a top-class sake taste like if you sealed the bottle with a cork and cellared it for 15 years?
Warm Kumamoto is generally shochu country

I had the experience recently, because Honda gave me a bottle of his Junmai Daiginjo from 1995. Sadly, I wish I had gotten to it a decade ago. There were some interesting walnut and white flower flavors, but overall it was too much like plaster and library paste.

Honda's aware that there's a limit to its potential. On his daughter's 20th birthday earlier this year he opened a bottle of 20-year-old Junmai Daiginjo to less than universal acclaim. "It was challenging," he said.

That's a big contrast from the 2007 Chiyonosono Junmai Daiginjo, a lovely sake with wine-like notes of peach, apricot and fresh flowers, yet a very sake-like creamy finish. Most sakes from 2007 would go down my drain; this one disappeared fairly rapidly down my gullet.

Kumamoto Castle is the region's main attraction
Why does this one age better? The sake has better acidity than some. In a blow against localism, Honda credits the use of Yamada nishiki rice from distant Hyogo prefecture (though the main ingredient in sake -- water -- is local, of course). They're careful to avoid air exposure during production and bottling. But they're not really sure.

The difference age makes is striking, though. I tasted tank samples of unreleased year-old Chiyonosono Junmai Daiginjo, and it was astringent and beery, albeit with appealing green melon and cocoa character. It's interesting that as it ages, at least for a couple years, the sake seems to taste younger.

The Junmai Daiginjo was easily my favorite sake from the 114-year-old family brewery. But I credit him for challenging my way of thinking about nigori sake, also regarding bottle age.

Nigori sake is crazily popular in the US because it's sweet and milky; it's the White Zinfandel of sake. I tend to think of it exactly that way. I liked it when I didn't know much about sake, and have graduated from it.

When I tasted Arabashiri Nama Junmai Ginjo Nigori, I was shocked. It's quite acidic, citrusy and light-bodied. Imagine picking up a glass of milk that tastes like a tank sample of Sancerre. I didn't know how to react to it, and couldn't imagine what somebody expecting a sweet, gooey sake would think.

"The nigori sake you can buy in the United States is not real nigori," Honda said. "Nigori sake has a little natural CO2. If time passes, this will go away. The taste will change. For us, nigori is seasonal. Only in early spring, we sell this sake. Big breweries sell nigori sake throughout the year."

Honda was too polite to elaborate on that last bit. But think about that the next time you consider ordering nigori: it's like buying a carton of shelf-stabilized, unrefrigerated milk. There's room for that product. But not in my glass.

"Garden of Eternity," though, is welcome anytime, although "Garden of Less Than A Decade" might be even better.

(Looking for an easy intro to buying sake in a restaurant? I got you covered.)


Portland Charcuterie Project said...

We have a great sake brewery here in Oregon called SakeOne.

I've been a fan for a few years, and it's fun to try something different driving to or from wine country.

ps.. what happened to your apology entry? That sweater was starting to grow on me :)

W. Blake Gray said...

I was told the apology was insufficient, so there was no reason to leave it up.

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Wow.. that's harsh.

That's one less Christmas card you'll have to send :)