I have been buying sake from the same shop here in Kamakura for over twenty years now. Sure, I buy sake regularly at other places, too. I am always searching for enjoyable sake shopping options that offer selections other than those with which I am familiar. Still, there is this one shop in particular where I have been quenching my sake thirst for over two decades.
The owner is both passionate and knowledgeable about sake, and appropriately opinionated and expressive about his preferences. During a recent visit, he opened up about the ginjo craze of late. He spoke in particular about the increasing visibility and popularity of exquisitely brewed but ostentatious daiginjo. Their pervasive aromas seemed to have him in a bit of a tizzy.
“As good as it is, I can’t even begin to drink that kind of sake with my matsutake-gohan…” he lamented, shaking his head. “Give me some junmai-shu for that.”
Matsutake mushrooms are a seasonal treat that can be ridiculously expensive. They are prepared very simply and without much handling. Their main draw is the aromas that present themselves when they are properly cooked. That usually means grilled, steamed or stewed. One classic way to serve them is in matsutake-gohan, where the fabulous fungi is steamed together with rice (gohan).
It is a fragrant dish with the aromas of the rice mingling with the damp-earth, pine and almost spicy notes of the umami-laden matsutake mushrooms. The dish begs for sake. What it doesn’t beg for is aromatic daiginjo. The aromas described above and their attendant flavors simply do not dovetail well with melon, apple and strawberry essences typically found in a lot of daiginjo. They have no business being in the same olfactory experience together.
The rice and matsutake aroma combination goes so much better with a subdued junmai-shu or even a honjozo. Sure, some ginjo will make it more enjoyable, but not the highly aromatic stuff redolent of lychee or licorice.
Ginjo and its even more ostentatious cousin daiginjo (just remember “ginjo to ‘dai’ for”) are great and are growing in popularity and production. With all those fruity and spicy aromas, much ginjo is immediately labeled something special, a work of art, a craft product. Although currently the four subclasses of ginjo (ginjo, junmai ginjo, daiginjo and junmai daiginjo) combine for about ten percent of the market, they get most of the spotlight.
It’s easy to just reach for the best. It spares us from the hassle of consciously thinking too hard about things when we are trying to relax. Ginjo does technically constitute the best sake that is out there. Let’s admit, though, that does not mean it is what we always want to be drinking. There is so much more to drinking sake.
In particular there’s the food. Sake was made to be enjoyed with food. The two love to be on the table together. Sake is food friendly and true mismatches are uncommon, but the choices involved can still benefit from a little conscious thought.
I’m not really writing about matsutake-gohan, or about any other food, sake or pairing idea in particular. If anything, this narrative is more about what you normally eat, both on a day to day basis, and when you splurge. It is about paying attention to what makes a sake appeal to you personally and not being lured into the “ultra-premium label” trap, at least not over your own preferences.
Quite often, really good simple flavors and aromas, which are usually the essence of good Japanese food, are more likely to pair well with slightly simpler, subtler and less expressive sake. Unless they don’t. Your senses will decide. There are no rules and at least we should think about what works in any particular situation.
I am not a junmai fanatic. At least, I’m not automatically partial to it over non-junmai types of sake. Nor am I anti-ginjo. I actually probably drink more of it than any other grade. I am also not at all against dropping cash for expensive daiginjo; sometimes it just has to be done.
I am simply pro-thinking. Pro-sake and food, pro-enjoyment, pro-intertwining sake into what we eat and do on a daily basis. It should always be on the table. Or at least it always can be.
Again, we should not always go for the ginjo just because it is ginjo. We should bear in mind that real quality is only partly determined by technical factors. They can help, but the time comes when every discerning sake fan has to go beyond that. Nor do we need to force ourselves to drink lower grades! Let’s just think about it; that’s all.
There is a time and a place for sake like aromatic ginjo and daiginjo. It can be great on its own, as an aperitif, with sashimi or umami-filled salty traditional nibbles. It is certainly great for a wide range of courses after that, too. But like my proprietor friend who finds he can’t drink that kind sake with his matsutake-gohan, it may not always be the best choice.
We need to drink the sake inside the bottle, not the label on the outside.
酒 酒 酒
This month in Sake Today we look at the yeast starter stage of the process and see how brewers get a batch of sake rolling along. Haruo Matsuzaki tells us about the prestigious sake region of Niigata, and we hear about the toils of being a toji (master brewer) from Philip Harper of Kinoshita Shuzo in Kyoto. The gorgeous city of Matsue in Shimane prefecture gets a well-deserved look, as do the three sake breweries within the city limits. We visit Takara Brewery in Berkeley to see how sake in the US is growing, and check out a few classic sake pubs in Tokyo for your next trip.
Enjoy sake today.
co-founder & managing editor