Sake may not be the first thing a wine drinker thinks about, when they reach for a glass of their favourite beverage.
But a Japanese sake producer is hoping to change that.
When he was looking to expand his family’s business, Mikotsuru sake president Akira Kondo immediately set his sights on Canada. Calgary, in particular, offered what he was looking for in terms of climate and food culture, he said during a 2015 trip to Calgary.
Alberta beef pairs well with these artisan, small-production sakes, noted Kondo. “The umami in beef works well with the umami in sake,” he said via his translator and importer Toshiki Uehara of Sake Gami.
The province's proximity to the Canadian West Coast and the Pacific Ocean — and its incredible seafood options for pairing — is a plus, too, he said. “He really cares about regionality and terroir,” said Uehara, talking about Kondo.
“He’d like everyone to enjoy his sakes with food, because they can complement what they are eating.”
Premium sakes are generally served chilled, Kondo said, and he prefers to serve them in typical white wine glasses — not the tiny sake cups that many associate with the brewed alcoholic beverage. (It's made more like beer than wine.)
If you’re looking for a pairing with beef, even a beef dish with a spicy chili accompaniment, Kondo and Uehara both recommended the Mikotsuru Junmai Ginjo Kuro. “It is well-balanced, with grapefruit and apple-pear on the nose,” Uehara said of the distinct black-labelled bottle. “It’s complex, with a creamy texture and a smooth, long finish.”
Kondo’s flagship sake, Mikotsuru Junmai Daiginjo, “ has tropical fruit aromas and is very complex, more like an exotic, silky white Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Roussanne,” said Uehara, who is also a sommelier.
“Like wine, he wants his sakes to show terroir.”
And just like wine, much of that terroir comes from how each sake is made, and where the sake rices are grown.
There are more than 100 kinds of sake rices in Japan, but only a couple are commonly used: kinmon-nishiki and yamada-nishiki.
Kondo grows his own, which is unusual; most sake makers buy their rice, but Kondo prefers to have control over every step of the process.
Before fermentation, the rice is polished, a process also known as milling, to expose the starch in the middle. The more the rice is polished, the more refined the taste.
It’s all about balance, however; the polishing process can remove some of the sake’s expressiveness, Kondo said via Uehara.
And that expressiveness is what makes a fine sake so easy to drink.
“Instead of white wine, try a sake instead,” said Uehara. “Sake is so versatile. It really complements many dishes.”
This story first appeared in City Palate magazine.