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Fall for the flavor of autumn sake

by Melinda Joe

The seasons in Japan can turn on a dime. When I’d left Tokyo for Sweden, at the end of September, summer had shown no sign of abating: The city was still sweating in 32-degree heat and 60 percent humidity. When I returned five days later, the air was lighter and the evenings pleasantly crisp. Fall had arrived. As if on cue, sake shops across the country began stocking their shelves with aki-agari and hiyaoroshi — limited-edition, seasonal brews.

Traditionally, fall was the prime time for sake drinking. Sake was brewed during the cold winter months and then pressed in the spring. While fresh shiboritate (just-pressed sake) has a certain appeal, sake, like wine, benefits from a bit of time to allow the flavors to mingle and mellow. New spring brews, though exuberant, tend to exhibit sharp-edged green notes and bitter astringency. Before the days of refrigeration, six months was deemed the appropriate aging time, and sake released in the fall was called aki-agari (fall yield). These days, maturation periods vary according to the flavor profiles each brewer wishes to create, but you’ll still see the expression on a lot of labels this season.

Fall’s hiyaoroshi refers to sake that has been pasteurized only once, after pressing, before it is shipped (the general term for sake that has been pasteurized only once after pressing is namadzume). Usually, sake is heated twice to halt the enzymatic action of bacteria and yeast, which can contribute to off flavors and aromas, and so unpasteurized namazake needs to be refrigerated. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), sake was stored in large, wooden tanks in the coolest part of the brewery, and any sake transported during the summer would have been pasteurized twice. Once the temperatures began to drop around September, however, the sake could be shipped without undergoing a second fermentation. Then, just as now, hiyaoroshi was prized for its balance of lively freshness and graceful harmony.

At this time of year, sake tastings are in full swing, providing numerous opportunities to sample hiyaoroshi. I recently tasted around 100 varieties myself, and I’d say the brews this year are coming along nicely.

One of the standouts that day was Yuki no Bosha Yon-Natsugoe Yukimai Junmaishu Hiyaoroshi, made from organic rice, which had clean flavors and bright acidity. Another sake that caught my attention was Dewazuru Junmai-ginjo Akita Komachi Go-Natsugoe, a rich, sweet brew balanced by notes of mineral and bitterness. I also enjoyed the line of full-bodied yamahai-style sake from Nagayama Shuzo in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The Yamazaru Yamahai Junmai-ginjo Hiyaoroshi and Yamahai Junmai-ginjo Hiyaoroshi Namadzume each had good acidic structure and some surprising savory notes.

On Oct. 1, I celebrated Nihonshu no Hi (Sake Day) with Mi no Kotobuki Porcini Hiyaoroshi, a lightly fruity and beautifully balanced Junmai-ginjo from Fukuoka Prefecture. Tonight, I’ll crack open a bottle of O-u Jiman Tokubetsu Junmai-shu. The hiyaoroshi season lasts only a short time, and I certainly intend to make the most of it.

The Fall Ginjoshu Festival, one of the season’s largest tastings, will take place Oct. 24 at the Hotel Metropolitan in Iidabsahi, Tokyo. www.ginjyoshu.jp Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.

  • Carl

    FWLIW, I had the Porcini just the other day at my favorite izakaya for nihonshu, Sakanaya in Ikebukuro. The mushroomy aroma was slightly offputting at first, but it was quite yummy indeed so I wound up ordering another round!

  • Charlie Sommers

    I have heard that sake has been improved tremendously since I left Tokyo way back in 1971 after eight wonderful years. I don’t see how this could be possible as it was a heavenly beverage even then.