By W. Blake Gray
"Spring Snow" is a pretty good nickname for a sake because it sounds not just delicate and natural, but outright freaky when you think about it. Snowing in springtime? You don't see that often.
Same for its sake namesake -- although in this case, blame not Mother Nature, but the US government.
Akitabare "Shunsetsu" ("spring snow") Nama Honjozo is highly unusual because it combines a class of sake we often see in the U.S. -- nama -- with one that we don't, honjozo.
Honjozo sakes are basically the same quality as junmai sakes, because at least 30 percent of the outer part of the rice is polished away. They're very popular in Japan. But because of US tax law on imported sake, they're uncommon here.
"Junmai" means "pure rice": nothing but rice, water and koji mold goes into a junmai sake.
For honjozos, brewer's alcohol may be added during the process. Usually this is done to create a lighter, less intense, more subdued style. Think about the difference between Italian Pinot Grigio and Alsatian Pinot Gris. The honjozo is more like the Pinot Grigio -- crisp, light-bodied, meant for food, at the sacrifice of some aromatic and flavor intensity. Yet there are plenty of mild dishes in Japanese cuisine that a richly flavored sake (or a full-bodied, super-aromatic Pinot Gris) would overpower.
Honjozo sakes are big in Japan partly because of their food friendliness, and partly because their easy quaffability makes it easy to drink quickly enough to get shitfaced. Japanese don't drink halfway.
However, while honjozo sakes are generally the same price or cheaper than junmais in Japan, in the US they are significantly more expensive. The US government taxes them at a higher rate because alcohol is added, so they drop into the same category as fortified wines like Port.
That, and the fact that junmai has the better connotation in the US of being "pure," has kept honjozo sakes from making any headway in this market.
This honjozo is an oddity because it's also "nama," which means unpasteurized. It doesn't taste like any other sake I've had on these shores. More on that in a moment.
The brewery, based in Akita prefecture in chilly northern Honshu on the Japan Sea side, claims to be bound by tradition. The company's junmai label proclaims "koshiki junzukuri" -- the old way. And the brewery claims to have been using some of the same tools for the past century (In case you're wondering, the US Air Force didn't bother flying that far north.)
And yet, Akitabare's sake lineup is pretty innovative. The daiginjo is bottle-aged for two years, which is almost heresy in an industry focused on freshness. And then there's this sake, which -- because it's nama -- is most definitely "drink now."
Before that spring snow melts.
The aroma is complex, with notes of cream, mustard powder, orange rind, oyster shell, melon and shrimp. But it doesn't prepare you for what you're about to taste. Neither does the mouthfeel, which is a big plus: it's tight and creamy at the same time, with a taut center and a long taut finish.
What I taste from this is melon, and plenty of it -- the characteristic of a nama, but definitely not a characteristic of most honjozos. I also taste notes of cream and oyster shell. It's a little pungent and never fattens up. That's a good thing -- it's very food-friendly.
I had it with Chinese delivery food -- sliced fish sauteed with bok choy, spinach with garlic and vegetable chow mein -- and it was excellent.
Overall Score: around 9
How Much?: $20
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.
A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.
I'll Drink to That: Danilo Nada of Nada Fiorenzo Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 8/23 Vinography Images: Night Sorting Small is Beautiful: The Champagnes of Savart I'll Drink to That: Karl duHoffmann of Anchor Brewing Warm Up: Jerez de la Frontera I'll Drink to That: Antonio Flores of González Byass California 2015 - Vintage of Fire Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 8/16 A Selection of Georgian Wines
Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune