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Aged sake makes for perfect pairing with food
A DOG is not what you would usually associate delicious sake with, but the name Tengumai invites you to make that link: it means "heavenly dog dancing".
Tengumai is a premium sake produced by the Shata brewery in Ishikawa prefecture. The brewery was founded in 1823 amid dense forest where the mythical Tengu creature resides, according to Japanese folklore.
The first-generation owner of the brewery imagined that Tengu, having drunk his sake, loved it so much that he danced. Given that Tengu is a red-faced, big-nosed goblin and not a cute puppy, it would have been a sight to behold - even if it was one induced by excessive alcohol intake.
Seven generations later, though, Tengumai has two more concrete claims to fame.
First of all, it adheres to the classic Yamahai brewing style, using natural lactic acid instead of commercially produced ones. Less than 10 per cent of the nearly 2,000 sake breweries in Japan use this method, as it is more laborious and takes twice as long.
Secondly, like beer, sake is brewed to be drunk fresh or within the year. Handcrafted Tengumai sakes, on the other hand, are aged between one and eight years.
Both these processes result not only in sake with a richer flavour and longer finish, but a tipple that goes exceedingly well with food. This was demonstrated during a sake pairing dinner at Waku Ghin restaurant last weekend, where eighth-generation Tengumai owner and president Kazunari Shata teamed up with Chef Tetsuya Wakuda for a seven-course dinner.
As an aperitif, Mr Shata presented Tengumai Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo Nama, an unpasteurised sake bursting with freshness despite having been aged for more than a year. It had an aroma of fragrant melon that segued into a surprisingly delicate and slighty dry fruitiness on the palate.
This Nama sake - served in a wine glass, as were all Tengumai sakes that evening - is good with white fish sushi, but may be overwhelmed by stronger-tasting red fish.
Only 500 standard bottles of it are produced every year, or 0.04 per cent of Tengumai's total annual production of 1.25 million bottles.
So don't expect to find it in a store.
More widely available is the Tengumai Bunsei Rokunen, named for the Bunsei era in Japanese history when the Shata brewery was founded.
Light golden in colour, this aged sake has a honeyed rice nose and dry, moderate finish. At the Waku Ghin dinner, it was perfectly paired with a plump and juicy Gillardeau No 1 oyster in rice vinegar dressing.
A more full-bodied sake called the Tengumai Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo was served with the next course, the Waku Ghin classic of marinated botan ebi, uni and caviar.
Aged for two years with unusual caramel and mushroom notes, this sake - which Chef Wakuda chilled to 2 deg C - was light and clean on the palate but with a remarkably long finish characteristic of the Yamahai style.
When allowed to warm slightly and paired with fatty tuna belly and crunchy endives, it displayed a mellower personality.
Mr Shata said sake becomes more gentle and mellow with ageing, which also allows the fruity and floral aromas to develop naturally.
The water for Tengumai is drawn from a town facing the icy Sea of Japan. This water of the Hakusan or White Mountain is soft, but not so soft that distilled alcohol has to be added for structure.
All these give Tengumai sake its distinctive traditional taste.
But Mr Shata, 47, also recognised the need to update its image, hence his creation of the Gorin label 10 years ago.
Gorin was a new sake concept which, like wine, has good acidity that makes it a better match with food; this higher level of acidity was achieved with higher temperature during fermentation.
The aromatic Gorin Junmai complemented Chef Wakuda's New Zealand scampi, flash roasted with vanilla.
Mr Shata doesn't speak much English, but it is obvious he is warm and friendly, with an interesting sense of humour - courtesy of an interpreter, of course.
His sake aptly reflects his personality: it is immediately approachable, yet sufficiently complex to hold your attention after a couple of glasses.
But unlike him, nothing is lost in translation when imbibing it, especially with food.
- For more information, contact Vin Passion & CIE, tel +81-3-6402-5505