Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Manotsuru Hizo Koshu Daiginjo, 10 Years Old

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.


Joe M. said...

Wow - sounds terrific. Any insight as to which traits make a particular sake ageworthy? Is there more koshu in the Nigata prefecture than in others? Is most Koshu aged entirely in bottle?

Peter Liem said...

Hello Joe,

I am so not qualified to answer your questions. I did ask how they select sakes for koshu (i.e. do they deliberately create an ageworthy sake, or is it more of a selection of particular batches that seem ageworthy), and apparently it's more of a batch selection during or after fermentation. Let me ask Mrs. Obata if she'll answer your questions.

Rumiko Obata said...

We usually select Daiginjo/Junmai Daiginjo for storing in the Gold mine, cool place where sake matures slowly. We think Daiginjo/Junmai Daiginjo can age well and become delicate Koshu with complex flavor in this situation. I am afraid I don’t have correct information about the amount of Koshu in each prefecture. All our Koshu is aged in bottle. Some producers age their koshu in tank.

Joe M. said...

Peter and Mrs Obata -

Thanks for the info.

Peter - Great writing and photos from Japan. Your happiness eating that ramen makes me happy - and very, very hungry. I'm adding your site to the links section on mine.

I work with someone who mentioned you're working on a book about champagne - how's it coming along?

Peter Liem said...

Mrs. Obata,

Thank you for your comments. Your koshu is fantastic, and I look forward to visiting you again on Sado Island.

Peter Liem said...


Thanks for the link. I am indeed writing a book on champagne, but of course my progress is slowed by such things as drinking sake in Japan. Not that I'm at all complaining. I'll be back in Champagne soon, though.

Jeff said...

Very interesting article. I recently recieved a kind email from Rumiko Obata informing me sadly that this koshu is not available in the the US. Any hints as to how I might find a bottle or two or, if such a thing exists, something comparable?

Peter Liem said...

Ah yes, availability. Always a problem. Probably the best person qualified to tell you about which koshus are available in the US is Beau Timken at True Sake, San Francisco's extraordinary sake shop. I know there is some koshu floating around in the US market, but haven't tasted any recently.

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