Go with the grain

One glance at a list of Japanese sakes can induce panic in restaurantgoers. Then there’s the labels: often beautiful tolook at – works of art, even – but incomprehensible without an English-language sticker on the back. Even then, the names can bebaffling.

Two sake experts recently led me through a tasting,  and I’ve read books, attended a course in Japan and judged in a Japanese sake competition, but reckon I’m still a bit in the dark.

The experts are Matt Young and Linda Wiss, both restaurant people who started their specialist sake importing company, Black Market Sake, two years ago. Young knows Japan well. He’s been going there since he was 18, when he worked in the ski fields. They  sell mainly to restaurants, because these wines need to be hand-sold, and  demand to be enjoyed with food.

I can tell you that ‘‘junmai’’ means ‘‘pure sake, without added alcohol’’ – and Black Market only imports junmai. ‘‘We haven’t found any honjozo [lightly fortified sake] that we’ve enjoyed,’’  Young says.

Honjozo used to be the norm – it still is for industrial sake – but these days people are increasingly focused on natural foods and drinks.

Two other useful words are ‘‘ginjo’’ and ‘‘daiginjo’’. Ginjo means ‘‘highest grade’’ or ‘‘special brew’’, a quality rating only exceeded by daiginjo, which means ‘‘great ginjo’’. Nearly all Black Market sakes are junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo, so we are dealing with the creme de la creme here.

Polishing of the sake rice is much discussed: the more polished the rice grains, the finer the sake will be and the more expensive to make. Ginjo rice is polished down to 60per cent or less of its original size. What remains is largely starch, so the result is a very fine, pure, subtle sake. Many are also ‘‘nama’’, which means unpasteurised – again, a more natural sake but also one that’s more vulnerable to spoilage.

As a wine lover, I enjoy good sake but often find it a little simple, without great wine’s ability to change and unfold in the glass. I can certainly enjoy a meal drinking only sake, especially at a top restaurant in Japan, but the point is that sake makes sense with food. Here Young and Wiss come into their own. They met at Aria Restaurant, where both worked for five years – he as a sommelier, she in management. Young has also worked at Rockpool Bar & Grill and is currently at 10 William Street.

So as we tasted 18 of their sakes, they  suggested a food dish for almost every one. It gives an insight into the truly surprising versatility of sake with food.

Take the first one for the day: Ota Shuzo ‘‘Dokan’’ Junmai Daiginjo Muroka Nama Genshu 2010, a 17.5per cent alcohol, 50 per cent polished grain sake costing $118. This was pale and intensely scented like marzipan; very fine and balanced with a light touch of sweetness and without any alcohol heat. ‘‘Great with sushi,’’  Young and Wiss say. Well, that one was easy. Even I could have gone with sushi there.

The next few sakes, all delicate, young and fresh, with varying degrees of sweetness, are recommended with crab, white-truffle risotto, pork, pickled fish, sardines, quail, comte or tete de moine cheeses, soba noodles and smoked foods such as eel and duck. The tasting progressed from the most delicate and subtle sakes to the more robust and characterful, and the foods became more hearty to suit.

The fourth sake served was a real eye-opener. Moriki Shuzo ‘‘Suppin Rumiko no Sake’’ Junmai Ginjo Muroka Nama Genshu Arabashiri 2010 (17.3per cent alcohol; $86) was brewed by one of only 20 female tojis (master brewers) in Japan. This  smelled of mushroom fuzz and a bready yeastiness. It had lots of aromas: a characterful sake that was impressively deep and powerful in the mouth, with a very long finish. It was one of my favourites.

Young and Wiss handle about 35 products and source sake direct from about 22 producers. Like beer, a lot of sake is mass-produced in giant factories, but all the Black Market sakes are artisanal.  The downside is they’re expensive; ranging between $75 and $100, with the rare, aged sakes topping out at $195 for a 1978 and $345 for a 1976.

In their manifesto, Young and Wiss say their aim is to offer the most extensive and varied flavour profiles one can experience in sake. For instance, some of their daiginjos are polished as much as 50per cent, but they are adamant that polishing is not the only guide to quality or desirability.

They also sell a genmai-zake, under the Genmaishu brand, which is entirely unmilled. In other words, the whole grains of brown rice have been fermented. The husk is split open to allow the grains to ferment. It takes longer to brew and requires 10per cent more rice for the same quantity of sake as polished rice. I sampled the Genmaishu 2010 ($59/500millilitres) and found it had a fuller yellow colour and smelled like toasted rice; nutty, almost bran-like, with full body and quite savoury flavours, a slight sweetness and a clean finish. The foods recommended were pastries, nuts, baklava and even foie gras.

The most surprising were kept until last. The 1976 Kidoizumi ‘‘New AFS’’ Junmai Yamahai Koshu had a deep tawny-brown colour, like an old liqueur muscat, and smelled like beef consomme with a dash of oloroso. Slightly sweet and very, very complex, rich and long with a savoury finish. And Young’s food tip? Aria’s famous duck and porcini consomme, of course.

Prices are for 720-millilitre bottles unless otherwise specified.

huon@huonhooke.com

Where to start in the art of sake

The best way to enjoy and learn is to go to a sake bar or restaurant where there's a good list and staff who know their subject. Aria, Momofuku Seiobo, Toko, Atelier, Ms.G's, Sokyo, Miss Chu and PaperPlanes are examples of ones that do. And some retailers are serious about sake: try Annandale Cellars, Ultimo Wine Centre, Best Cellars, the Oak Barrel, Northbridge Cellars and Camperdown Cellars. There is also a copious amount of information at blackmarketsake.com.

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Three Hunter Valley identities have formed the newest burgundy-importing company. Winemaker Keith Tulloch, Cessnock general practitioner and wine judge Ken Dobler and the former chief executive of Len Evans's The Rothbury Estate and later the Evans Wine Company, Denis Power, have formed Domaine Burgundy, based at Newcastle. It focuses on small-production wines from family domaines, selling online. They've released a list of 10 impressive domaines, which include Billaud-Simon from Chablis, Marc Morey in Chassagne-Montrachet, Philippe Chavy in Puligny-Montrachet, Pierre Damoy and Drouhin-Laroze in Gevrey-Chambertin and Francois Bertheau in Chambolle-Musigny. Power says: ''I seem to have spent half a lifetime flogging containers of wine to international grocers and have missed out on a lot of wine fun. It's time for that.''

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This article Go with the grain was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.