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07.08.2008

Akitabare "Shunsetsu" Nama Honjozo, Akita Prefecture

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.

Tasting Notes:
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.


Food Pairing:
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.

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