Frankly, most sakes don’t age all that well, and the vast majority of sake is intended to be drunk within a year or so of release. There is a small category of sake, however, called koshu, that is truly ageworthy.
Sado Island boasts one of the most famous gold mines in the world (it ceased operation a couple of decades ago), and in a stroke of inspiration, a group of sake producers has appropriated one of its cool, underground tunnels for use as a cellar. It’s normally off-limits to visitors, but Mrs. Rumiko Obata took us down there for a little peek and generously treated us to a sip of her rare Manotsuru Hizo Koshu Daiginjo.
Aged for ten years, this shows unbelievably elegant aromas of white truffle, fresh porcini and bone marrow, with a graceful, subtly layered fragrance. On the palate it’s like a hit of pure umami, demonstrating a burnished, biscuity character that my friend Akiko compared to aged champagne, yet it doesn’t taste “old” at all, as the overall feel is one of vigor and vitality. Even at ten years of age this exhibits a classic Niigata character—clean, dry and light on its feet—and finishes with long, taut and complex flavor. I’ve tasted some excellent koshu before, but never anything quite like this.
Later that day, we tasted a younger version of this sake, brewed last year and tucked away in the cellar (it will also be released at ten years of age). Sake and wine often behave very differently, but in this aspect, this koshu showed exactly the same character that you might expect a young, ageworthy wine to possess, emphasizing structure over aroma and feeling closed, restrained and slightly constricted. It’s the first time I’ve ever had an opportunity to do a comparative tasting of koshu sake like that, and it’s an experience I won’t easily forget.