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Selling the Italians on sake, ‘the wine of Japan’

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At 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday in Milan — the height of the aperitivo hour — the courtyard of the stately Chiostri dell’Umanitaria building was filled with people sipping drinks.

As the late-afternoon sun splashed over the trees, the scene was bathed in the warm and familiar glow of incipient intoxication. But instead of Negronis or spritzes, this well-heeled crowd was drinking sake, at the first edition of the Milano Sake Festival. The two-day event, which took place in September, drew a mix of restaurant-industry professionals, sake neophytes, Japanophiles and fashionistas in town for Milan Fashion Week.

“I don’t know much about sake, but this is fun,” remarked a woman in her 30s, sampling a sake-based umeshu from Gifu Prefecture. Beside her, a man wearing aviator sunglasses and a tightly fitted yellow shirt picked up a bottle of Awasaki sparkling sake from Kobe Prefecture and nodded approvingly. A young man with a hipster goatee held out his tasting cup at the next table. “I’d like to taste the classic styles first,” he announced with confidence.

The sake festival was produced by La Via del Sake, an NGO run by digital-marketing wiz Marco Massarotto, with the support of the municipality of Milan. Massarotto started La Via del Sake after falling in love with the drink three years ago in Tokyo.

“The moment I tasted its flowery flavor, I understood that sake is the wine of Japan and that nobody knew this story back in Italy,” he said.

Roughly 600 people attended the event and Massarotto said a larger version is being planned for Milano Expo 2015.

Italy is the latest country in Europe to get hip to nihonshu. Although it lags far behind the top two markets, Britain and Germany, Italy trails France by only a small margin. While sake producers hope that Italian conviviality — coupled with a recent taste for Japanese cuisine — will lead locals to embrace the brew, importer Orlando Cassese sees Italy as “the most difficult” European market. Speaking on a panel of sake experts from across Europe, Cassese cited the country’s “strong wine culture” as an obstacle but noted that sake has a lot of potential to expand beyond Japanese restaurants.

I also spoke at the event, and I was glad to see a healthy number of Italians among the international attendees. The fact that chefs from some of the city’s best contemporary Italian restaurants — such as Michelin-starred Cracco and Al Pont de Ferr, and rising-star newcomer Rebelot — turned out for the event was encouraging.

Although it’s unlikely that the average trattoria will start offering sake with meatballs, today’s top restaurants are more open to experimentation, and I can see sake working well with some of the creative cuisine I sampled during my visit to Milan. Getting sake onto menus at high-profile restaurants could certainly help the drink gain headway: After all, the way to a nation’s heart is through its stomach.

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.