I am always ecstatic when I find an amazing new wine or Saké, a drink that impresses my palate and makes me crave more and more. Earlier this week, I found just such a Saké at a local tasting and it was one of the highlights of my week. Plus, I found a wine store that stocks a fair number of different Sakés. All in all, some great finds.
I have been on the mailing list of Ball Square Fine Wines in Somerville, receiving their newsletters, but had not checked out the store until this week. On Tuesday, they held a Saké tasting and that fact was sufficient to get me to trek out to the store. I'll report further on the store in the near future, and concentrate here on the details of the tasting.
There were four Sakés at the tasting and all were from the Akita Prefecture of Japan. Akita is a northern region and has very cold winters, a perfect place to brew Saké. This region is represented by Linda Noel Kawabata, pictured above, who is the U.S. Brand manager for the Akita Sake Promotion and Export Council (ASPEC), a consortium of five Saké breweries including Hinomaru Jozo, Suzuki Shuzouten, Akita Seishu, Tenju and Ginrin Brewery. Linda was very personable and seemed both passionate and very knowledgeable about Saké.
The first Saké I tasted was the Minato "Harbor" Tsuchizaki Yamahai Futsuu-Shu, ($24.99) made by the Naba Shoten brewery. The brewery uses locally grown rice, a special yeast brand, and water from the nearby Omono River. They chose the name "minato", which means "harbor," due to the local fishermen who have long enjoyed their Saké. Only 33% of the rice, Miyamanishiki, has been polished away and it has a SMV of +1, making it slightly sweet.
This Saké had an earthy smell, likely due to the Yamahai brewing method. I actually found it to be dry, and not really sweet, though that might also be due to its high acidity. It was full bodied with a wild flavor, probably not something that would appeal to a person new to Saké. But if you already enjoy it, then this would likely appeal to you. It could easily stand up to heartier foods, or maybe something with a gamier flavor, like lamb or wild boar.
Next up was the Dewatsuru Habataki Junmai Ginjo ($31.99), made by the Akita Seishu brewery. The brewery's philosophy is "Good harmony makes good saké." They try to rely on local ingredients whenever possible. 45% of the rice, Akinosei, has been polished away (qualifying it as a ginjo) and it has a SMV of +5, making it a dry Saké.
I found it to have a mild nose, only a slight aroma of steamed rice. Its taste was also mild and smooth, with a bit of minerality. It was good though not impressive, but it should appeal to those new to Saké. It did pair very well though with some creamy goat cheese, and might make a nice pairing for other creamy cheese, or light seafood dishes.
The final two Sakés were produced by the Hinomaru Jozo Brewery and the owner, Jouji Sato (pictured above), was present to showcase two of his products. Though he did not speak English fluently, and we needed a translator for some matters, his charisma and passion were obvious. You couldn't help but like Mr. Sato.
The Hinomaru brewery was founded in 1689 so it has a rich, vibrant history. It is a small, very traditional brewery. The brewery took its name from the family crest of the ruling Satake clan: a folding fan with a hinomaru ("sun") design. They are the only ones permitted to use the "Hinomaru" name, which is also the name of Japan’s national flag. Mr. Sato, who used to work in banking, assumed control of the brewery upon his father's death, taking over the family business. The brewery's philosophy is to make “the truest of the true” Saké.
Their Toji, the Saké brew master, is Ryoji Takahashi, who has held that position for over twenty years and he brings extensive experience and knowledge to the brewery. Despite all of his experience, he still believes that “mastery comes slowly and patiently, one year by one year by one year over a lifetime commitment to the craft.”
One of their more unusual brewing techniques is that they age their Saké in the bottles, usually for about a year. There are few, if any, other breweries which do this. According to Mr. Sato, “..the bottle aging prevents oxidation and flavor loss, and preserves our exceptional quality.” Their brand name, “Manabito,” is taken from a local mountain that overlooks the fields where the Saké rice is grown. It is also a word that means a person who is "true blue."
I initially tasted their Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo ($21.99/300ml) and it was amazing, immediately impressing me. It is simply one of the best Sakés I have tasted in quite some time. 45% of the rice, Takane Monori, has been polished away (qualifying it as a ginjo) and it has a SMV of +5, making it a dry Saké. It is also a Kimoto, meaning it is brewed through a very traditional, laborious, and risky method. Most Saké brewed in this method has an earthy, funky flavor.
Its nose though really lacked any earthiness, and had more of a subtle fruitiness and slight rice aroma. From my first sip, this Saké seduced my palate with its complex, rich and smooth taste that possessed only hints of earthiness. It had good acidity, a lengthy finish and was very well balanced. It was very different from any previous Kimoto I have tasted, being much mellower. This Saké should please anyone, whether you already love Saké or not. Because of its richness, this would pair well with heavier foods, from fried foods to fatty meats. I cannot recommend this Saké enough and I made sure to buy several bottles. It was such an exceptional brew and at this price, it is a very good value too.
The final Saké of the evening was the Manabito Junmai Daiginjo ($24.99/300ml). 50% of the rice, Miyamanishiki, has been polished away (qualifying it as a daiginjo) and it has a SMV of +3, making it a slightly dry Saké. This was a very elegant Saké with a more floral nose, as well as some floral accents on the palate along with subtle fruit flavors. A smooth drink with a lengthy finish, this is a Saké to slowly sip over dinner, such as light seafood. I bought a few bottles of this as well.
If you can't make it to Ball Square Fine Wines to buy these Sakés, then you should know they are imported and distributed in the U.S. by Winebow. At the tasting, representing Winebow, was Claudio LoCascio, the Brand Manager for their Saké portfolio. If nothing else, you need to taste the Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo. I will be sure to keep some of it stocked in my own cellar.