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2002/01/06

Uncorking the bubbly, Nihon-style

By JOHN GAUNTNER

Happy New Year to all Japan Times readers. May 2002 be a year of health and prosperity for all.

And what better way to open the new year in Japan than with a glass of bubbly — sparkling nihonshu, that is. It really does exist. Although sparkling sake has only been available commercially for a few years, the little that is out there can be rather enjoyable.

Sparkling sake is made the same way as regular sake — up to a point. Fermentation is halted earlier than is usual, when the alcohol is only around 5 to 10 percent, as opposed to the 18 to 20 percent of normal sake. At this time, there is still plenty of sugar in the mash. The sake is then pressed and bottled. There, in the bottle, a secondary fermentation takes place that produces carbonation.

The end product is naturally a bit different from regular sake. For one, the alcohol content, while varying from producer to producer, is much lower — closer to that of beer. Also, sparkling sake is much sweeter than normal sake. The flavor is pleasant, but more like cream soda than daiginjo. Sometimes a slight koji mold aroma remains.

Also, sparkling sake is almost always a little cloudy. (The sediment will settle in the bottle if you let it sit and then pour carefully.) In order to create the secondary fermentation, a significant amount of sugar and yeast is needed to get through the pressing step. So, while not nigori-zake (unrefined sake), most sparkling sake has a bit of murk to it.

The amount of sugar that goes into the bottle can be discovered by noting the nihonshu-do. This measure of residual sugar at bottling time is usually between -3 and +10, with the former being quite sweet for a normal sake. Sparkling sake can have a nihonshu-do of -25 to -90. Yikes! But keep in mind, this is the measurement at bottling. Much of this sugar will subsequently have been consumed by the yeast during secondary fermentation, so the end product is not as sweet as those numbers seem to suggest.

Should you want to try some sparkling sake, the Suzune sake described below is fairly easy to find. Also look for Oku no Matsu FN from Fukushima. FN stands for Formula Nippon, as in the F1 automobile races. Why celebrate the victory with Champagne, thought the creative people at Oku no Matsu, when we can celebrate with sake? They created a very fizzy and tasty premium sake that foams all over everything when shaken and opened in the winner’s circle. (You can see the foam in action, read more and buy it online at www.rakuten.co.jp/kametsuru/397006/397010/421536/)

Shinkame of Saitama makes a nigori-zake that is quite carbonated; while not marketed as a sparking sake, this certainly functions like one. Caution, though: This sake is very unique in its strong, tart and earthy flavors. It is not for everyone (although I dig it no end).

Other producers of sparkling sake include Ume no Yado of Nara, with a nice, thirst-quenching product called Tsuki Usagi; Rokkasen of Yamagata with a sake called Hito-toki; and lovely Seikyo of Hiroshima, with their Tenshi no O-sake.

There are others, and most larger sake shops and department stores will carry one of them. Another good source — as always for sake — is the Internet. A quick search will turn up numerous sources for these products.

Note that there is no official term or designation for sparkling sake. It is usually just called supakuringu in katakana, or sometimes bihappo-seishu or bihassei-seishu. The terminology is not standardized and varies from brewer to brewer. In fact, the original designations are often retained: Oku no Matsu is a junmai daiginjo, and Suzune is a junmai-shu.

While sparkling sake is softer and sweeter than Champagne, it cannot, in all honesty, compare to fine Champagne when judged by most criteria. However, it can be very enjoyable and is definitely worth a try.

Suzune (made by Ichinokura of Miyagi Prefecture)
Suzune is made with a unique process for which a patent is pending. It is light and smooth, with a fine fizz that tickles as you taste. Sweet but not cloying, and clean overall. Find out more here: www.ichinokura.co.jp/

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On Jan. 19, Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist Rob Yellin and I will be hosting our first sake and pottery seminar of the new year at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho. As this is the first seminar of the year, we will cover the basics of both worlds. Those interested should make a reservation with me by e-mail.
Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter at sake at www.sake-world.com To be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events and seminars, send an e-mail to sakeguy@gol.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.