One of the great advantages of sake is that it can serve as a companion to food where wine or beer would fail. I attended an interesting discussion among sommeliers at last year’s Salon du Sake in Paris, and while they maintained that there is a winepairing for every dish out there, a sommelier’s job can be made a lot easier by thinking outside the box. While one sommelier’s recommendation to pair soup with sake held the most surprise for me, the main message was that sake and vegetables can pair up beautifully. Linking this to iffy wine pairings, several items immediately come to mind: asparagus, artichokes, pine nuts… Over the next couple of months, I will try to focus on pairing up some of these ingredients with both wine and sake. First up: Asparagus.
In the What is Sake? section, attentive readers may have noticed that I left out one specific class: Tokubetsu. This was a practical decision (couldn’t fit in in a pyramid), but also an intentional one, as it kind of falls outside the polishing grade-based classification. For a sake to be called Tokubetsu, it needs to fulfill one of the following conditions: a polishing ratio of 60% (placing it firmly in the ginjo category), made using only sake-specific rice or ‘made with a special production method that needs to be explained on the label’. In reality, about 99% of Tokubetsu sake bases its labelling on a combination of condition one and two.
So this means that we are dealing with a sake that could perfectly be labelled ginjo, but where the brewer makes the conscious decision not to. This is where it gets interesting, as it means that the sake will in all likelihood not adhere to the flavor pattern sake drinkers have come to expect from ginjo sake (which tends to go toward delicacy, nuance, fruit and floral notes). It may be a bit more experimental in nature, yet still with the refinement and attention put towards it that you would expect from a premium sake.
Honda Shozen, located in Himeji (Hyogo prefecture) has built its reputation on (expensive) daiginjo sake. In recent years, they created a different, more approachable line. Although polished to 65% making it technically ginjo-grade, the Tokubetsu Junmai Gentei Dragon (red label) is one of those rare bottles that derives its Tokubetsu classification from the illustrious third condition: a special production method. It is a blend of two different fermentations: one part fermented using the Kimoto method, another part made more traditionally but fermented closer to dryness than usual.
Quite intense herbal notes at first on the nose, followed by a bit of cream cheese. The palate is powerful but with a marked acidity, so you would not want to drink it too cold. Overall it packs a punch yet remains consistent throughout. It is the herbal edge to it that really makes it a good match with the asparagus, and the more pronounced character than what you would normally expect from sake matches the intensity of the asparagus. Very convincing, and a sake that would do well with other types of food that have distinct herbal notes.
When I wrote on asparagus last year, I ignored the classic French pairing: white asparagus and Alsatian Muscat. Nowadays I am sort of rediscovering the Alsace, and although it can almost be seen as negligible when it comes to planting (2.4% in 2014), its status as one of the noble varieties certainly earns it a place at the table. Honestly though, it is not one of my go to grapes. As I find it overly aromatic, and even when completely dry often with a flabby lingering on the palate. The few bottles I have tucked away in the cellar all contain something of residual sugar, but that does not mean that I cannot be surprised.
Domaine Albert Mann’s Muscat 2016 is actually a blend of two varieties: 70% Muscat Ottonel, the standard plantation in the Alsace these days, characterized by less overt and grapey aromas, and 30% Muscat à Petits Grains, more commonly associated with sweet wines in the South of France or with Italian Moscato. It has the characteristic grapey aromas in the nose, but there is a floral edge to it at well to counter it on intensity. Juicy on the palate and easydrinking, yet with a slightly bitter herbal touch towards the finish. It paired up nicely with the asparagus.. Only point of improvement would be a bit more added roundness on the palate, to go with the clarified butter, but for a weekday dinner it is perfect.