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By The Glass


Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Elegant sake is well
worth the wait

Several nights ago I tried what I think may be the first true crossover sake to reach America. By "crossover" I mean a sake of such delicacy and charm that even flinty burgundy-sippers light up with a smile at first sip.

It comes from Uchigasaki Brewing Co., founded 340 years ago in Miyagi Prefecture. Located in one of the finest rice-growing areas in Japan, and blessed with abundant, soft spring water, the brewery produces light, delicate, tenderly crafted sakes under its "Hoyo" label.

What makes this sake so special is the new rice strain, Kura no Hana (Flower of the Brewery), from which it is made. Just as vintners strive to create new grape varieties, brewers in Japan work to develop new rice strains. Work began on Kura no Hana 16 years ago, in a partnership between the Miyagi prefectural government and the brewer's association. What they sought was a brewing rice that would produce an elegant sake with a gracious aroma that complements food well.

Ten years after research began, the first bottling appeared, under the label of the Furukawa Agricultural Research Section. Uchigasaki was one of the first commercial breweries to work with the new strain, and released its Hoyo "Kura no Hana" daiginjo two years ago. It was first introduced with a polishing ration of 40 percent (60 percent of the rice polished away), but this bottling was deemed a bit faint and the ratio was dropped back to 45 percent this year, giving the sake more body and cohesion while sacrificing nothing in the way of aroma, flavor and balance.

Another factor in this year's success was the weather. The main fermentation process, or shikomi, takes about three weeks, and the brewery started in on Kura no Hana right after New Year's, when the weather was sharp and cold. Just as fermentation was completed and the pasteurized pressings transferred to tanks for storage, the weather turned warm, to the detriment of the sakes that came after. "If we'd waited two weeks before starting in," the brewery's owner, Ken Uchigasaki, told me recently, "we never would have got it right."

Only one vat of Kura no Hana daiginjo was made this year. Instead of being siphoned into a tank after pressing for aging, the contents were transferred to 1.8 liter bottles and kept in cold storage. When an order comes in, the sakes are transferred by hand to 15-ounce bottles, pasteurized and then shipped via refrigerated container to Hawaii. Few, if any, breweries in Japan exhibit this level of care in preparing their sakes for export.

What does it taste like? "If sakes were people," one enthusiast commented recently, 'Kura no Hana' would be a young girl playing gaily in a meadow." It is almost transparently light, with winsome natural sweetness and innocent grace that are irresistible. Its delicious aroma, with a faint touch of anise, makes it a lovely companion to salads or light seafood dishes, but it also tastes wonderful just by itself.

Hoyo "Kura no Hana" can be found at several sake specialty restaurants around town, including Furusato Japanese Restaurant in Waikiki, and at Fujioka's Wine and Spirits in Kaimuki. The total overseas allocation is about 20 cases a month.

Chris Pearce is Chris Pearce is a founding director of the International Sake Association.

This column is a weekly lesson in wine
pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals.
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