For Sake’s Sake 11/28/11
Some of you have probably heard legends about the country of Japan: a magical island in the Far East so full of ninjas and robots and Nintendo products that it simply became too enthralling for our humble planet to bear, and as a result the gods took action, submerging it beneath the icy depths of the ocean many thousands of years ago, never again to be uncovered. What you probably don’t know is that a while back a new nation was founded, by coincidence also named Japan, which indeed is for all intents and purposes identical to the lost isle of yore.
A good friend of mine has had the great fortune to have actually lived in Japan for some time now, and my vinous envy was sparked the other day when he informed me he was headed to a wine event: the Ashikaga Wine Festival in Tochigi, Japan, to celebrate the 2011 harvest at Coco Farm & Winery. The most notable thing about this festival from my perspective (other than Phil’s delightful, drunken romp through it, which you can view here if so inclined) was that it featured Japanese grape wine – not sake, the country’s trademark beverage, which is fermented from rice.
To date my experience with Japanese grape wine has been, in a word, nonexistent, because these wines (like so very many others) are not available in Pennsylvania. And while Phil’s aromatic descriptors of the Coco Farm Red Wine’s “grapey grapeness” didn’t exactly leave me craving a glass, a quick trip over to the winery’s website reveals a pretty impressive portfolio of much more interesting wines than the ones Phil chose to drink.
Chief among them are wines made from Koshu, a Japanese grape I’ve had my eye on for well nigh a year now, but which I’ve sadly only encountered in article form, beginning with this little writeup from the New York Times. Richard Auffrey has also had the chance to taste a number of Koshu wines, which he wrote about here. And while I enjoy well-written pieces on up-and-coming grapes as much as the next writer with a strong interest in up-and-coming grapes, there’s just no substitute for the experiential profundity of drinking a new wine in person. It’s true what they say: you can’t spell “profundity” without “fun”! It is not, however, true that anyone says this.
In any case, I won’t be discussing Japanese grape wine any further – until I get to drink it, that is. Instead, I’ll finally take a chance to talk about sake (pronounced SOCK-ay), sometimes called rice wine. You may remember sake – but shouldn’t, if you were doing it right – as the key ingredient in the sake bomb, a blend of beer and sake that routinely serves as the beverage of choice for college sophomores everywhere whose dorms are adjacent to Japanese restaurants that don’t check IDs. But bombing sake tastes thin and sterile, much like a hospital, and it wasn’t until recently that I discovered the good stuff (and indeed, that there was any good stuff to begin with).
Today I’ll share my thoughts on two sakes: the Wakatake Onikoroshi Ginjo made by Oomuraya Brewery in the Shizuoka Prefecture, and the Momokawa Ruby Junmai Ginjo produced by SakeOne in Oregon. Yes, that’s right: Oregon. Because if I can’t drink grape wine from Japan, I might as well drink rice wine from America, right? Right!
I picked up a 2/3 bottle (500ml) of the Momokawa Ruby for $13 at the PA state store I know and love, in part because of a disagreement between W. Blake Gray and Richard Auffrey (again) as to the state of American sake. In his article Gray speaks quite poorly of this particular sake, describing an “unpleasantly gloppy mouthfeel,” so I figured I had to taste it because frankly that sounded damn interesting.
In the glass, this one poured a surprisingly yellowish color, in contrast to the (admittedly few) sakes I’d tried in the past. The nose presented an unmistakable surge of melon aromas, especially cantaloupe, which I found to be consistent on the palate as well, along with hints of cream.
As for the mouthfeel, I could definitely see what Gray meant by “gloppy”; there was more texture there than I would have expected. I could also see how one might interpret this sensation as unpleasant, but I rather enjoyed it. Full-bodied for sure, this verged toward the sweet side of the spectrum, but it paired incredibly well with barbecued chicken (from Zook’s BBQ Barn at the Newtown Farmers Market, in case you’re wondering). There might have been some excess heat on the end, though.
I award the Momokawa Ruby Ginjo Sake thumbs up. The cantaloupe notes were strong, and I respect that kind of commitment.
The Onikoroshi, translating to “Demon Slayer,” ran me $29 for a 720ml bottle, the most I’ve ever spent on sake (and within the upper limits of my wine budget). In the glass it poured mostly clear with a hint of white coloration. On the nose I detected papaya, a bit more restrained than the cantaloupe cannon of the Momokawa Ruby. In addition, I detected lactic aromas that I’d describe as cheesy.
True to form, both the tropical fruit and the cheese were present again on the palate. Here I even pinpointed the flavor as Dubliner cheese: a kind of nutty, sweetish note that I found suited me just fine. This sake was more nicely balanced than the last, and somehow both light and rich – certainly a laudable achievement. And it disappeared pretty quickly, too.
I paired it with the same barbecued chicken from Zook’s, albeit a week later, and the results were interesting: while it worked, this didn’t go quite as well with the chicken as the Momokawa had, while it went sublimely with some bread and butter. Noted.
I award the Demon Slayer thumbs up, and would encourage it to take a break from demon slaying to enjoy some sake.
My final thoughts? Sake is great, I should drink more of it, and you should drink more of it; but hurry up and import some freaking Koshu already, wine industry.