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Thursday, Dec. 14, 2000

NIHONSHU

As the mercury drops, new sake rises to the top


'Tis the season when almost everything around us is slowing down, gravitating toward hibernation. The sake world, however, is just gathering steam with the birth of the brewing season's first batch of sake.

With actual brewing of initial batches beginning in November, right about now is when the first batches are pressed. Naturally this does not apply to large brewers that brew year-round, and there are also many that start earlier or even later than the average. But traditionally and statistically, these few weeks see the pressing of the first tank of the year at many breweries.

And along with this first pressing comes a handful of terms -- with greatly overlapping meanings -- to describe this sake.

After the tank of rice, water, koji and yeast has run the course of fermentation, the clear sake must be separated from the white slurry of rice solids that remain. This "pressing" is usually done by a machine that forces the slurry though fine mesh panels, catching the solids and letting the amber ambrosia pass through, although there are other, more labor-intensive, quality-imparting methods than these machines.

Regardless of the method, this pressing step is known as shibori, and the first pressing of the brewing season is hatsu-shibori. We can often find sake labeled shibori-tate, or "just pressed" on the shelves of sake retail shops.

We can also see sake labeled shinshu, or "new sake." Most sake is aged after pressing for about six months to about 18 months, although there is great variation in this from brewery to brewery. Aging sake like this allows the Beaujolais Nouveau-like brashness to mellow and round out. Shinshu is sake released without this maturation, and has a brash youthfulness to the flavor.

So, one might reasonably ask, what is the difference between a shibori-tate and a shinshu? The main inference is that a shibori-tate is just out of the presses, with all of the attendant brashness that implies, whereas a shinshu may have been pasteurized, filtered and tweaked, but simply has not been aged for long, if at all. And yes, there is a whole lot of overlap there.

Much sake released now is also nama-zake, which is sake that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization in sake means temporarily heating it gently to deactivate enzymes that could alter the flavor. These active enzymes could send the sake out of balance if it is not kept cold. Sake that has not been pasteurized has a zingy, fresh, appealing lilt to the fragrance and flavor, although this aspect can overpower the true nature of the sake if it is not kept in check during production.

Much shibori-tate is nama-zake as well, as is much shinshu. Not confused enough yet? Here are a few terms that, while by no means limited to this time of the year, may be a bit more common to this season.

Genshu is stronger tasting because it has not been cut with water after brewing. Sake ferments naturally to about 20 percent alcohol, which is a bit high to allow the fine nuances to come through. It is therefore usually cut with water to bring it down to about 16 percent alcohol. This often complements the rough-and-tumble brashness of shibori-tate sake.

Muroka means unfiltered. Most sake, after pressing, is at some point in time filtered using powdered active charcoal to fine-tune the flavor and remove unwanted aspects. Muroka sake has a wider range of flavor components, and again refraining from filtering augments the appeal of freshly pressed sake. It all works together.

Note the mutual inclusivity among these terms. For example, you could have a shibori-tate nama muroka genshu, and it would not be at all uncommon or strange, even if it is a mouthful.

But in the end, all that really matters is enjoying just-made sake when it is best.

Along with the arrival of the season's first sake comes the proliferation of sugidama, the large globes of tightly bound sugi (Japanese cedar) leaves, suspended by a cord in front of sake pubs and sake shops. Also known as sakabayashi, sugidama originated in the Edo Period. They are hung out in front of sake breweries when the first batch of sake is pressed each year.

The sugi tree holds religious significance in the Shinto religion, particularly in connection with Omiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture, which houses a deity of sake brewing. Traditionally, the leaves from the sugi on the shrine's grounds were used to make all the sugidama for sake brewers everywhere.

Although there are several stories, one says that if the leaves of sugi are soaked in the sake, it will not go bad. Until about 60 years ago, tanks for sake brewing were made of sugi wood, as are masu, the small boxes traditionally used for drinking sake. Sugi wood is believed seen as being best for protecting the sake from spoiling. But there are other interpretations.

As the sugidama are made in late fall or early winter, the needlelike leaves are still green. Over the next several months, however, the green needles turn brown. Originally, it was said that when the color had changed to brown, the sake had aged enough to be ready for drinking.

* * * * *

Niwa no Uguisu's "Daruma Label" tokubetsu junmaishu

Niwa no Uguisu (Fukuoka)
"Daruma Label" tokubetsu junmaishu
Nihonshu-do: +5
Acidity: 1.5
Seimai-buai: 50 percent for the koji rice, 60 percent for the rest of the rice

Niwa no Uguisu (The Nightingale of the Garden) is brewed at a tiny firm known for putting great care into their brewing. This "Daruma" sake, of which there is also a daiginjo version, bears the image of the founder of Zen.

Daruma is dry and narrow in flavor, clean but with a soft pull to the recesses. There is a slight essence of dried autumnal fruit to the fragrance and flavor, backed and delivered by a nice standing acidity.

Although it may be hard to find at just any old liquor shop, Niwa no Uguisu Daruma is comparatively easy to find at good sake pubs.



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