Food & Drink

Japan turns the tables on France with sake nouveau


For decades, France has exported millions of bottles of Beaujolais to Japan every November, with some people celebrating its arrival by literally bathing in the fruity red wine. Now, Japanese produces of rice wine hope to turn the tide by bringing “sake nouveau” to France.

While wine critics are apt to turn up their noses at overly young banana-scented Beaujolais, the sake nouveau being sent to France is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets, its promoters claim.

A dozen top French chefs are so passionate about the drink that they have incorporated sake nouveau into their menus, either serving it with French food or including it in their recipes.

“Sake nouveau is unpasteurized and only lasts for six weeks or so after it is bottled. But it has much more body, taste and nose than classic sake,” says Youlin Ly, the Parisian restaurateur behind the drive.

It is almost unknown to most Japanese drinkers, he admits, where sake has lost ground in recent decades to beer and wine.

“Sake is very much a local drink in Japan. People traditionally tend only to drink the sake of their region or village,” Ly says. “There are local events in little villages for the sake nouveau but nothing national. Sake is always made in winter because you need steady low temperatures to control the fermentation and the first sake tends to mature in January and February,” adds Ly, who owns the sake boutique La Maison du Sake, based in the French capital.

Michelin-starred chef William Ledeuil, famed for his fusion cuisine, is using sake nouveau in a dish of lacquered beef and foie gras, adding it to a broth infused with cedrat, yuzu citrus and lemongrass.

“I also use it like peasants did long ago with wine by adding a bit to the bottom of a saucepan of soup,” says the owner of the KGB and Kitchen Ter(re) restaurants in Paris.

Two-starred chef Alexandre Gauthier was so taken with sake nouveau that it is the only non-French beverage allowed onto the wine list of his acclaimed La Grenouillere restaurant near Le Touquet in northern France.

It has also been included on the menu of the Mirazur at Menton on the French Riviera, which came fourth in the British-based list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Unlike some classic sake that are served warm, sake nouveau is usually served cold in wine glasses, says Ly.

“Classically the taste of sake was not meant to get in the way of the food. In general it wouldn’t have much nose, or any real aroma at all. Nor was it very long in the mouth,” Ly adds.

But that is changing. “Nouveau sakes and modern sakes are much more aromatic and are very much made to be drunk like a wine,” he says.

For now, only one brand of sake nouveau, Dassai — made in the small town of Iwakuni near Hiroshima — is being brought to France. But next year Ly says he hopes to have at least 10 others.

“For the last five years, we have seen a real surge of interest in sake in France. The volume being sold is still very small (around 50,000 bottles a year), but it is going up all the time, with the country’s leading wine retailer now stocking sake.”