Mushroom risotto vs. aged sake

To show that nothing has really changed, this week’s pairing will revert to a familiar theme: risotto! I have recently been occupied with an attempt to better understand how to match sake with the established classics of Western cuisine. Sure, it’s easy to go into the cliché and only drink sake with sushi, but there is so much more potential. Over the coming weeks and months this type of post will emerge from time to time, and I think it will be interesting to discover how certain aspects of sake will match with ‘atypical’ dishes.

‘Koshu’, aged sake, is the one-percenter of the sake world. The general rule is that sake does not age well and should be consumed quite early. This goes especially for the more delicate types, genre ginjo/daiginjo with a high degree of polishing and low acidity. They lose their aromatic intensity and acquire a dull, musty flavor. A polishing ratio that favors more ricey and dense flavors is generally a good starting point. Next, you’re better off using the Kimoto or Yamahai method as this already exposes the must to oxygen, which will have an impact on the sake’s acidity as well as arming it against the ageing process. There are no rules when it comes to the ageing process: several breweries are experimenting with ageing it in stainless steel, in barrels or in bottles, all at various temperatures, ranging from subzero (to preserve the authentic flavor pattern) to room temperature.

To me, proper koshu is the one where you can taste the ageing effects: if I cannot find the difference between a one year old and a ten year old sake just because the latter has been stored at 0°, it is more of a marketing trick (aged sake does not come cheap) than a revolutionary addition to the world of sake. Furthermore, there is a limit on how much ageing, even deliberate, sake can endure. At one point it will fall into the category ‘interesting to try once but not to actually drink’, which is also not really a producer’s goal, unless it can then be sold as ludicrous prices.

Aged sake will take on a darker color, closer to sherry, going right to Pedro Ximenez-like iodine when it goes full-on ancient. Flavorwise the umami aspects will become more pronounced, and it will take on notes of forest floor, mushrooms, dried fruits, nuts, even moving towards soy sauce. Aside from the aged version of Kijoshu, which is a niche within the niche and quite dense in flavor, I find it surprisingly lean on the palate. The flavors are intense, but there is focus, a quite marked acidity as well, that keeps it approachable.

Daruma Masamune is one of the key producers of koshu, having played a major role in its revival. Their flagship koshu is the Ten Year Old, but they also produce a neat set of smaller bottles, allowing you to see how exactly sake evolves over time. Now how does aged sake fare against this staple of Italian cuisine? Three years (bottle on the left in the picture) actually proved to be the best match overall, as it is just at the tipping point of evolution and savouriness, while retaining a soft taste. Five years was aromatically the better match, but as koshu has the tendency to become more ‘naked’ as time goes on, developing a more pronounced acidity, it was perhaps just a little too fresh. The aroma’s really stuck with me though, as there were a lot of commonalities with the parmigiano used to finish the risotto. Finally Ten years (which is incidentally the youngest blended component in Daruma Masamune’s 10 Years) was a koshu to savor on its own. Remarkably intense in aroma’s, almost crushing the delicate scents of the risotto. If I were to pair it again with food, I would still go to mushrooms, but combined with perhaps more gamey ingredients as well.

What better pairing with a drink that increases in umami over time than mushrooms? When it comes to wine there are two classics: Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, as they also develop those lovely damp leafy notes while not losing sight of a fruity core. Just to put it up to the test (and in case the aged sake variants were not to everyone’s liking), I opened up a bottle of Ghislaine Barthod’s Bourgogne 2014. Barthod is a reference producer in Chambolle Musigny, and the villages and premier crus have become more and more difficult to procure, but the entry-level Bourgogne is not to miss. Quite gamey in flavor, not what I would have expected. With time there are floral notes that appear as well, but it is on the palate that the finesse really appears, already quite soft and gentle, not to extravert, yet fresh and slightly spicy towards the finish. Aromatically speaking it goes quite well with the risotto, although the freshness, which is wonderful on its own, struggles with the creaminess.

Felice is a joint project between Carussin, an established producer in Piemonte, and Frederik Kolderup, a Norwegian wine importer? They have been working together for almost ten years, and produce three distinct wines: two Nebbiolo’s sourced from Barolo and Barbaresco, and a Barbera-based blend. I came across Felice at RAW three years ago, and was immediately charmed by the fruity character it presented, well-balanced against a grippy touch on the palate. It goes more towards vin de soif and seems to marketed as such as well (bottled under crown cork). To go against a dense risotto however, it is too light and too fruit-forward I’m afraid.

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