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08.25.2005

Uchigasaki Hoyo "Kura no Hana" Junmai Daiginjo Sake

Part of the joy traveling to another country for an extended period of time comes from the opportunity to not just sample tidbits of culture, art, food, and drink, but to stew yourself in them for periods of time and figure out what you really think.

In my 18 months or so spent living in Japan, I didn't "figure out" a lot about Japanese culture, despite my enjoyment of every minute, but I did completely fall in love with sake.

My first real experience of sake beyond the hot little carafes that provided endless sake bomb entertainment in college was at one of the first dinners I had in Japan. Some Japanese colleagues took me to a members-only sushi restaurant and when I expressed some curiosity about sake, they were all too willing to indulge me. The first chilled glass of Kubota Manju was a revelation that there was a depth to sake experience that rivaled my experience with wine.

With some ad hoc guidance from business colleagues, and a store that sold sake just down the street from where I was living, I slowly began to discover some of the range and variety of sake, and found it the truly perfect companion to much of Japanese cuisine that I was also discovering at the same time.

I suppose I have those business colleagues to blame for what is now a fairly expensive taste in sake. I have no doubt that I haven't actually sampled the true upper echelons of sake production (the sake equivalent of a 1982 Lafite Rothschild) but I do tend to only be satisfied by what are known as "ultra premium" sakes.

Of course, we don't really have a good translation of the various classifications of sake that exist, so it's best to just learn the Japanese classifications. The grades of sake, ranging from "Futsuu" at the lowest end to "Junmai Daiginjo" at the highest end, have to do not with the specific location of the where the sake is made (though there are some areas which are renown for their sake) but with the kuro.no.hana.label.gif quality of rice and water used to make the sake, whether alcohol is added, and in particular, with how much of the outer part of the rice kernel is milled or polished away before being made into sake. The more the rice is polished, and the absence of added alcohol generally means a higher grade of sake.

This sake is of the highest possible grade, a Junmai Daiginjo-shu (the -shu just means sake), which indicates that it was brewed with rice kernels that have been washed and polished to the point that they are at least 50% of their former size, and contain only the sweetest, purest part of the rice kernel. This classification also means that the sake does not have any added alcohol.

Known in English as "Fair Maiden," this sake is made by a family run sake brewery named Uchigaseki in the Miyagi prefecture of northeast Japan. The brewery has been making sake for over 300 years under the sign of the phoenix, which is said to protect the family.

"Kuro no Hana" is handmade in small quantities during the cold winter months using the local "sasanishiki" sake rice. Like nearly all sake, it does not have a vintage, and is made every year with only minor variations in taste and quality.

I hope that I've pulled the right label off of the brewery's web site. Perhaps some of my Japanese readers can correct me if I haven't.

Tasting Notes:
Colorless in the glass, this sake has a nose of wet pine planks, light grape notes, and hints of floral aromas. In the mouth it has a reasonable but not ideal acidity and a somewhat viscous mouthfeel carrying flavors of rainwater, light melon, and nasturtium flowers that taper into a rather long finish.

Food Pairing:
This sake would be a great accompaniment to this tomato-basil crab bisque.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $30 per 500ml bottle.

This sake is available for purchase on the Internet.

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