Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Elemental Beauty of Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo

Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.
--Vista M. Kelly

Snow is Sake's friend. 

Consider that the traditional Sake brewing season starts in October and it's said that the best Sake, like most Daiginjo, is made during the coldest, snowiest months. Some of the snowiest prefectures of Japan are considered to be the best regions for Sake. For example, the snowy prefecture of Niigata, with over 90 breweries, is one of the most popular Japanese regions for the production of Sake. Located in Niigata, the Hakkaisan Brewery is using the copious snowfall in a rather unique way, to assist in the maturation of a Sake.

Hakkaisan Brewery, which was founded in 1922, is located in the city of Minami-Uonuma, which is nestled in a valley known as Yukiguni, Snow Country, due to its heavy snowfall. At the foot of Mount Hakkai, within Minami-Uonuma, the snow can be as much as nine feet deep. The brewery has a water pipe at the foot of Mount Hakkai, bringing in Raidensama no mizu, "spring water from Raiden," which is a super-soft water and excellent for Sake production. Raiden is the Japanese god of thunder and lightning.

One of their newest releases is the Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years ($60), which is pictured above, the pure white bottle intended to reflect the nature of pure snow. I was sent a media sample of this Sake, which certainly intrigued me when I was informed of its nature. I had some questions about the Sake, which were initially directed to Timothy Sullivan, a Sake Samurai, Certified International Sake Sommelier (SSI), and the founder of Urban Sake. Timothy is also the Brand Ambassador for Hakkaisan and last November, started a year of working at the brewery and contributing to their blog. Some of my questions, of a more technical nature, had to be forwarded to their Toji, Shigetmitsu Nagumo.

"Be like snow — cold, but beautiful."
--Lana Del Rey

The Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years is special in a number of ways, making it a more unique Sake. First, most Sake is brewed using only a single type of rice but Hakkaisan produces a number of Sakes using two or three different Sake rices, including this Snow-Aged Sake which uses three. Yamada Nishiki, the "King of Sake Rice," is used to make the Koji, so they can "maximize the brewing characteristics of Yamada Nishiki." As the Toji feels the creation of koji is the most important step in Sake brewing, he wants to "emphasize the characteristics of Yamada Nishiki such as the pronounced aromas and softness." For brewing rice, they use a blend of about 80% Gohyakumangoku & 20% Yukinosei, with the Gohyakumangoku providing a light clean flavor and the Yukinosei providing Umami. This blend of three Sake rice types provides them the target flavors they seek.

The brewing rice was polished down to 50%, which technically is the minimum rate for a Daiginjo, though this Sake is labeled as a Ginjo instead. The brewery was aiming to "apply Daiginjo-class production techniques to all levels of our sake in order to improve the overall quality of the sake that people drink everyday." Thus, as part of that intention, this Sake was labeled as a Ginjo rather than a Daiginjo.

As I've mentioned before, aged Sake is rare but this Snow-Aged Sake is one of those exceptions. It is aged for three years in a fascinating place, a Yukimuro, a snow storehouse. Constructed in July 2013, this is an insulated storage room with almost 19,000 square feet of floor space. Within this space are 20 storage tanks, each which can hold 20,000 liters, and the only Sake within those tanks is that intended for their Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo. Not all of the tanks are filled at any one time.

Besides those twenty tanks, the Yukimuro is also filled with approximately 1000 tons of fresh snow! They gather the snow from the low hills behind the brewery and only need to fill it once a year. By the end of that year, there is about 1/3-2/3 of the amount of snow remaining. This snow will maintain the temperature within the storage tanks at a stable 3-5 degrees Celsius year round. There is also no need for electricity within this building, making it a more eco-friendly solution for aging. Each year, they produce about 400 Koku of this Snow-Aged Sake, which is the rough equivalent of about 10,000 720ml bottles.

What does this snow aging accomplish? Some Sake, usually called Koshu, is aged but not under very low temperatures. That causes the color to change drastically, to darken so it looks more like an old Port or Sherry. It also brings out very different flavors, usually much more earthy elements. However, aging under low temperatures generally does not change the color and it seems to primarily raise the complexity of the Sake. It may also help to mellow and smooth out the Sake.

The Snow-Aged Sake is a Genshu, meaning it is undiluted by water and possesses a 17% ABV. In addition, it has a SMV -1, Acidity 1.5 and Amino Acid 1.3, which won't mean much to many people except you should understand that it has a higher acidity level than similar Sake, meaning it works even better with food pairings.

I shared this bottle with several friends at a dinner party, where all of the food was prepared with Sake, including tomato-bread soup, halibut, rice, and chicken wings. Everyone enjoyed the Hakkaisan and I think it worked very well with the various foods, especially considering its high acidity and rich umami. I found the Hakkaisan to have a more subtle aroma and on the palate presented an elegant, deep complexity with hints of melon and a touch of anise. It was full-bodied and smooth with rich, savory umami. A hedonistic pleasure that is extremely food friendly. It is certainly worth its price and I highly recommend it.

The snow elevated this compelling Sake, providing a deeper, elemental aesthetic to it. 

"Kindness is like snow-it beautifies everything it covers."
--Croft M. Pentz

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rant: Wineries, We Don't Care About Medals

Sure, all of those shiny medals and brightly colored ribbons hanging on your wine bottles look pretty but I don't care about them. And I'm not the only one. I think it's safe to say that most wine writers feel the same, that the fact your wine won a handful of silver, gold or even double gold medals is basically meaningless to us.

I attend numerous media/trade wine tastings, meeting many winery representatives, wine makers, winery owners, importers, distributors, PR reps and more. As I taste their wines, it's inevitable that a significant majority of these individuals will boast of the medals that their wines have won. That is when my eyes glaze over and my ears shut down. It's not something I'm going to write about and it's not something that matters to me in the least. It's a waste of your words.

Consumers might be interested in hearing you talk about your medals but most wine writers I've spoken to would rather not hear about them. We would rather judge the wine on its own merits, rather than caring about how well that wine did at some wine competition. In a similar respect, we don't want to hear about your wine scores either, as they too are basically useless to us.

We do want to hear about your story, about the people behind the winery. We do want the technical specifications, though some of us want more than others. We want to hear about what makes your wines unique. And we will taste your wines and decide on our own what we think about them. If any of us really wants to know about your medals and wine scores, then we will ask, but I doubt many will inquire about those.

Please also consider the fact that at many of these trade tastings, our tasting time is limited so we may not spend lots of time at any one table. As such, you need to be succinct, providing us the most valuable information in a short period of time. Don't waste that time bragging about your medals when that is the last thing we want to know. You can brag about your medals to the consumers.

Save your breath and please don't even mention your medals.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Bangkok Brings Tasty Thai & Vietnamese To Melrose

Good things something come in small packages.

The Bankgok is a small, new Thai/Vietnamese restaurant on West Wyoming Avenue, near the railroad tracks, in Melrose, that opened around mid-March. There are about five small tables, for two people, in the restaurant and they have room to put up another couple tables if they get busy. They also do take-out and delivery, though delivery may be limited to the evening hours. I've dined there on multiple occasions, mostly during lunch time, and including getting take-out one evening.

Their website has little information about the restaurant beyond the necessary basics, though you will find their full menu online. Some research indicates that corporate officers are also connected to Pho & Rice in Somerville and Thana Thai Kitchen in Arlington. In the near future, I will try to speak with the owners for more background on the restaurant but for now, I'll primarily deal with their food and service.

The Menu is extensive, with plenty of Thai and Vietnamese options, and is very reasonably priced, with no dish costing more than $15. The Menu categories include: Appetizers ($5-$7), Salads ($7-$8), Soup ($4), Vietnamese Pho & Thai Noodle Soup ($9-$12), Stir Fried Noodle ($10-$14), Fried Rice ($10-$14) Bun-Vermicelli ($9-$11), Rice Plates ($10), Sautéed ($11-$14), Curry Dishes ($11-$14), Bangkok Specials & Seafood Entrees ($11-$15), and Sides ($1-$3.50).

They don't have a liquor license but their drinks menu includes items like Bubble Tea, Smoothies (though it appears they are not available yet), Thai Iced Tea, Lychee Juice, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Coconut Juice, and more. It is nice that they usually bring a large bottle of water to your table, though you drink it out of a paper cup.

They have about thirteen Appetizers and I've tried several of them. The Roti Curry Sauce ($7) is a  Fried Scallion Pancake served with a Green Curry Sauce. The pancakes are fresh, light and flaky, and not greasy. They make an excellent vehicle for dipping into the sauce, with its tasty flavor combination of coconut, lemongrass and mild spicy heat.

The Moo Pbring ($6.50) are grilled skewers of lemongrass marinated pork, accompanied by a smoked chili and tamarind sauce. These were excellent, with lots of tender, moist and flavorful pork and the sauce added some sweet & spicy elements. Forget those dry beef teriyaki skewers you get at other Asian spots. These easily put them to shame.

The Gyoza ($5), which you can have steamed or pan-fried, come as either Pork & Chicken or Vegetarian, and are served with ginger soy sauce. I opted for the pan-fried Pork & Chicken and they were tasty, filled with plenty of meat, and fried just enough to add some crispness to the gyoza skin.

The Sai Grog Issaan ($6) states it is "Sausages fermented Pork and Glutinous rice" but appears to be sliced sausage with lettuce, cucumbers and peanuts. The sausage was tender and spiced well and the veggies were fresh.

As for the Soups, I tried the Soup Hoanh Thanh ($4), which are pork and shrimp dumplings gently boiled in clear chicken broth with lettuce, onion, scallion and cilantro. You receive four plump and meaty dumplings and the broth is clean and mild. This would be especially good on a chilly day.

The Pho Gar ($9) is a Chicken Noodle soup with shredded chicken, rice noodle, onion, cilantro, and scallion with aromatic chicken broth, accompanied by some bean sprouts, herbs and lime. The broth is intense with flavor and there is plenty of chicken within the soup. The noodles had a nice chewiness to them.

The Mi Hoanh Thanh ($10) consists of pork and shrimp dumplings, yellow noodles, sliced pork, scallions and cilantro in a chicken broth. This is a hearty dish, with several slices of tender pork and plump dumplings. The noodles are thinner than the ones in the Pho but still had a nice texture and chew to them. There was plenty of flavor in the broth making this a very compelling dish.

The Rice Plates ($10) come with Traditional Vietnamese Grilled meat (chicken, pork or beef) accompanied by steamed Jasmine Rice, fresh tomato, cucumber, sliced lettuce and their Fresh Homemade Sauce (Nuoc Cham). You can also add a Fried Egg ($2). Above is the dish with the grilled chicken and egg. Another excellent dish with plenty of tender, flavorful chicken, enhanced by the egg, and the veggies were fresh and crisp. There was plenty of rice below all of the toppings. A good value for only $10.

I enjoyed a few other dishes, but which I don't have photos. The Grapao Gai Sub ($11) is stir fried minced chicken with fresh chili and basil. A spicy dish, it was very good layered over some rice. The Com Chien Fried Rice ($10) is Vietnamese fried rice with a combination of shrimp, chicken, Chinese sausage and mixed vegetables in Vietnamese chef's special sauce. Lots of flavor in this rice dish as well as plenty of meat. It tasted very fresh. The Chicken Pad Thai ($10) consists of stir-fried noodle with egg, bean sprout, turnip, and scallion in a Thai tamarind sauce topped with ground peanut. A nice choice as well.

The restaurant has a special, second menu which you probably won't receive unless you are Thai. It's only written in Thai and they don't have an English translation though your server will explain it to you if you ask. You can see there are sixteen options, priced $7-$12.

Fortunately, Pai Chourattana on Facebook generously provided me a translation of their menu which will help you navigate this special menu.

Off this special menu, I tried Nheam Kra Dook Moo, sour pork ribs (#6 on the menu), which were accompanied by some cucumber slices and lettuce. You need to gnaw the meat off these small pieces of ribs, which have a mildly sour flavor to them. These would make for a nice bar snack.

Also off the special menu, at #16, is the Garlic Pork Over Rice, which also comes with a few cucumber slices.  It's a simple dish, pieces of slightly fatty pork with crisp pieces over garlic over white rice. But it is hearty and tasty, perfect for a rainy day.

The Garlic Pork dish also comes with a small bowl of soup, a slightly soup broth.

I'll be sure to try more items off this special menu as there are plenty of other dishes that interest me.

Service is very good, personable and attentive. Overall, I've been very pleased with the quality and taste of the food from The Bangkok. It is fresh, with clean flavors, and there is enough diversity for all preferences. I've already been recommending it to my friends and I'll also continue regularly dining there. It is a welcome addition to the Melrose area.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

2014 Zorah Karasi Areni Noir: An Armenian Wine

Like the country of Georgia, Armenia has an ancient history of wine making, including the use of large clay vessels for fermentation and maturation. I know little about Armenian wines except what I've recently amassed. I don't recall ever seeing any Armenian wines in local shops, until recently at Streetcar Wines in Jamaica Plain, where I found the 2014 Zorah Winery Karasi Areni Noir (about $30).

The winery was founded by Zorik Gharibian, an Italian-Armenian, with the initial purchase of small plots of land in the Vayots Dzor region, about 1600 meters above sea level. As he wanted to make more traditional wines, Zorik sourced out karasi, clay vessels similar in many respects to the qvevri used by Georgians. The use of these ancient vessels, which extend back thousands of years, has been dying out. Zorik had to seek out used vessels, searching many different villages to find what he desired. He eventually acquired about 30 karasi and restored them all to working order.

Zorik's vineyards are phylloxera-free with sandy soil, rich in limestone, and the grapes vines came from cuttings from abandoned vineyards located at a nearby 13th century monastery. His wines are fermented in concrete vats and then matured in karasi for about a year. They are then lightly filtered and spend another six months in the bottle before release.

This wine is made from the indigenous Areni Noir grape, an ancient varietal that also extends back thousands of years. It is thought to have originated in the village of the same name in the Vayots Dzor  province. Within Armenia, it is used to make a variety of still red wines, rosé and even brandy. Considering the relative isolation of this grape, and its lengthy history, this is a grape that reflects Armenia, which provides a true sense of place.

This is a medium-red colored wine with a pleasing nose of red fruits and spice. On the palate, you truly experience its uniqueness as it presents with a complex and appealing melange of flavors, including red fruits, spice, herbal notes and an underlying earthiness. There is so much going on in the palate and there is also an exotic hint to the wine which will make you question its origins. It wasn't overly tannic, had plenty of acidity as well as more minerality. Delicious and food friendly, I strongly recommend this wine.

And now, I need to learn more about Armenian wines.

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
1) Scampo, at The Liberty Hotel, has chosen to extend its “Jazzy Cocktail Nights,” a weekly late-night live music series that pairs sophisticated sounds with elegant cocktails and savory bites. Designed for Bostonians looking for a new twist on the nightlife scene, the Thursday night series, from 10pm-1am, transforms Scampo’s bar and lounge area into a sleek hideaway that showcases the talents of some of the region’s top music acts whose genres include jazz, vocals, Latin rhythms, funk and blues:

May 18: Alec Hutson Trio, an eclectic group that plays folk, gypsy and jazz
May 25: Tony Leva Trio, a quintessential upright bass jazz group featuring musicians from Longy School of Music
June 1: Bonnie & The Hot Stuff, a multi-decade group spanning classic jazz, standards and torch songs
June 8: Dylan Jack Quartet, a well-known group playing upbeat jazz with a bass clarinet, upright bass, guitar and percussion
June 15: Belén Cusi, an Argentinian singer-songwriter specializing in Latin jazz
June 22: Josef Nadj, an electric violinist who leads a quartet that plays jazz fusion and will feature a special guest vocalist

With the new series comes a dedicated list of cocktails and bar bites available exclusively during the Thursday performances from 10pm-1am. For single-serve cocktails ($16 each), highlights include the Boulevardier, a stirred concoction of rye, Campari and sweet vermouth finished with an orange twist; Classy Champagne Cocktail served in a water glass with sugar cubes and a lemon twist; and, Roaring Violette with lychee, Violette, lavender, white wine and bubbles.

For those looking to take their imbibing game to the next level, there are sharable Punch Bowl Cocktails ($36) – that come shaken for two, served in festive brass pineapple-shaped vessels – like the Sparkling Jazz with Absolut, lime, Aperol and a prosecco float with floating orange pin wheels and Dubonnet Sangria with wine, fruit, anejo tequila and hibiscus with a ginger beer float and fresh fruit. For those with a late-night sweet tooth, there’s the Prohibition Milkshake ($36), a large format liquid treat of vodka, chocolate ice cream, crème de cacao, Kahlua and bubbles served with freshly made mini bacon doughnuts.

On the culinary side, there are a quintet of items that are available in addition to Scampo’s seasonal pizza offerings: Veal & Pork Meatballs in a 17-minute candeli sauce with shaved pecorino gremolata ($12); Fried Arancini with Pomodoro and parmesan ($10); Calamari a la Plancha with fennel salad and chipotle aioli ($10); Bruschetta with homemade ricotta, candied pistachios and warm guanciale ($11); and Lydia’s Stuffed Dates ($11).

2) This Sunday, from 5pm-1pm, Taberna de Haro will open in honor of BU Graduation. They are accepting reservations, whether or not you are a BU grad. Starting June 4, Taberna de Haro will also open every Sunday with a special menu consisting of cold tapas. All will be priced at $5 each.

Here's a sample menu of Sunday's Tapas ($5 each)
Gildas ~ 2 toothpicks full of salty briny things
Canapé de jamón ibérico ~ one perfect Iberian ham canapé
Manchego con anchoa ~ sheep cheese w anchovy, evoo
Montaditos de erizo ~ mini canapés of sea urchin paté
Mar y montaña ~ tomato bread, one fuet, one tinned mackerel
Patatas alioli ~ garlic potato salad
Chorizo picante ~ spicy hard chorizo, evoo, picos
Mojama y huevas ~ cured tuna & mullet roe, olives
Tomates con atún ~ fresh tomato, tuna, onion, sherry vinaigrette
Cogollo con queso azul ~ Gem lettuce wedge w Spanish blue cheese
Alcachofas con pimiento rojo, boquerón, alioli ~ artichoke hearts, roasted red pepper, white anchovy, alioli
Arzua Ulloa con miel y nueces ~ Galician soft cheese with honey and walnuts

To make a reservation, please call 617-277-8272