Tuesday, November 22, 2016

For Goodness...Sake?

“You know that in the back of every sushi restaurant there’s a guy going, ‘Hey, look! They ate it! You want some hot wine to go with that, too?” – from “An Evening With Robin Williams”

I remember hearing that line at my friend Dave’s way back in the early days of cable. Dave figured out how to set the tuner on his VCR to get access to free HBO. Comedy specials, Excalibur, and Heavy Metal ensued.

Before I get lost in nostalgia, let’s get back to the late great Mr. Williams and his coke-fueled special, which is still one of the greatest pieces of standup ever committed to film, or tape, or whatever digitally remastered media you want to mention. (And the man’s pants. The pants. See for yourself...)

Anyway, the “hot wine” that he’s referring to is Sake. Sake is one of the native drinks of the nation of Japan. Sake is a fermented beverage made from rice. The process of creating sake is an interesting one – and bears more similarity to the making of beer than wine. Sake, however, is classified as a wine, as it’s typically bottled somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15% alcohol.

For many years, most Americans only knew inexpensive sake – either served hot with a meal like a tea or dropped as a shot into a pint of beer (the unfortunate “sake bomb”). Sake makers are exporting more and more premium sake into the States, providing another alcohol alternative for thirsty connoisseurs of Asian (and other) cuisines.

Sake, as we’ve mentioned, comes from rice. Sake rice, known as saka mai, is grown only for beverage production. It’s not really suitable for eating.

The first step of sake production exposes the rice grain through milling or polishing. This was once done by hand (or, more accurately, by foot by stepping on the grains) but is now done mechanically. The rice bran is polished away, leaving the grain behind. The amount of polishing done determines the quality category of the beverage. Cheap “table wine” sake-bomb sake (known as futsuu-shu) may be milled to 80% of original weight, where the ultra-premium junmai-daiginjo is milled to 50%.

Once the rice is milled, the grains are washed to remove residue and soaked to increase the moisture levels in the grain. The rice is then cooked by steaming, with a portion of the total amount held back to create the fermenting starter, which is where the process really gets interesting.

Sake rice (and rice in general) does not have the naturally fermentable starches that grains like wheat and barley do, so the existing starches in the rice grain must be converted. There is a particular type of beneficial mold, called koji-kin, that is sprinkled on a portion of the rice. This mold penetrates the rice kernel. The inoculated rice is called koji. At this point, the koji is added to the rest of the rice, along with more water and a particular brand of yeast. Several batches of koji are added over the course of the fermenting process. The mold converts the starches to sugars, which are consumed by the yeast – at which point alcohol is produced. The product at the end is then pressed, filtered, pasteurized, and allowed to age for 3-12 months before bottling.

If you’re exploring the world of premium sake, you’ll run into two classifications most commonly. Those are junmai (pronounced JOON-mai) and junmai-ginjo (JOON-mai GEEN-joe). “Junmai” means that what you’re drinking is straight sake. Lower grades of sake are often bottled after some neutral alcohol is added. The primary difference is the percentage of “milling.” The more the rice is milled, the higher the quality (and price) in general.

These versions of sake tend to have very light bouquets but fairly upfront flavors, they can be slightly sweet and fruity, and can be slightly acidic. Premium sake (basically anything above the quality of futsuu-shu) should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Heating sake, like heating any spirit, basically kills the aromatics.

I received a couple of sample bottles of sake from Ty Ku – one of the larger sake houses in Japan – Ty Ku Silver (junmai -- $16) and Ty Ku Black (junmai-ginjo -- $22). I’m not a sake connoisseur – and I honestly haven’t had a glass of sake in quite some time when I tried these. The Silver has a light pear nose, which is mirrored on the palate. Beneath the fruit is an alcohol flavor with a little bit of an alcoholic kick. There’s also a melon flavor that builds a bit. The first taste is a bit jarring. It eases into something a little more pleasant after drinking a bit. As for the Black, the flavor is much more gentle. The flavors are fairly similar, but they’re softer, more even and easier to work with for my palate.

Honestly, neither of them would be drinks that I would ordinarily have a craving for on their own. I tried a little of each with some tuna and salmon sushi rolls. I thought the sake was certainly better with sushi than on its own (especially if there were some wasabi on the rolls).

The other use I’ve seen for sake is as a mixer. It gets subbed in for dry vermouth in some recipes, like sake versions of martinis, gibsons, or cosmos – or for vodka, in something like a “sakedriver” with orange juice. All things being equal, it was certainly a flavor twist, but I personally preferred the classic versions.

Sake’s an interesting twist on your normal aperitif or mixer. If you’re going to give them a try, don’t go for the bargain basement stuff. Drop a little coin on a bottle of junmai-ginjo and decide if these flavors are your thing. If you like it, off to the races. If you don’t, then use the rest of the bottle as you would rice wine vinegar in your favorite Asian recipes. No muss, no fuss.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Few Thanksgiving Bottles

To accompany the Guide to Thanksgiving Wine Buying I put together for your reading pleasure, I recently got a few bottles from the Wine Fairy that could fall into the “let’s give this a go” category for your Turkey Day table. 

Villa Gemma 2015 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé – This rosé is made from one of my all-time “just drink it” grapes, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. (Cerasuolo is the town near where the grapes are sourced.) It’s considerably darker in hue than most rosé. In the bottle, the wine could easily be confused for a lighter red, like a Chianti. It pours bright ruby red with a medium weight body and flavors of cranberry and cherry. Despite the fruitiness, it’s quite dry and somewhat acidic on the finish, which would make it practically ideal for a varied table. $12.

Les Dauphins 2014 Côtes du Rhône Réserve Rouge – This is a solid, round, lightly tannined red. Rustic plummy flavor and aromas with a little smokiness towards the back. A lasting finish with very nice balanced fruits and tannin. I thought this was a great all-purpose red. There’s enough of that French earthy backbone to be interesting yet not scare off casual red wine drinkers. It would basically pair with anything roasted – turkey and pork would go very well, but you could pull it out for something like roasted fish in a darker sauce or even a beef tenderloin. Super flexible, which is what you’re looking for. $13.

Marina Cvetic 2010 Merlot – Instead of the Supertuscan blends one might expect, this wine’s made from 100% Merlot. Rather than a domestic fruit bomb, the blackberry and plum flavors are much more restrained within a framework of Old World earthiness, coupled with some background minerality from the terroir. The Sweet Partner in Crime thought this was a little too big for her, but I thought it was a pretty nice wine. I appreciated the fuller body without overwhelming fruitiness. Considerably better with food than on its own, this would be an ideal wine alongside something cheesy, like a casserole that uses gouda or sharp cheddar to hold things together. About $25 a bottle, which makes it a little pricier than I’d usually use for Thanksgiving, but if you have a small gathering of red wine drinkers and you want to provide something a little on the upscale side, it’s a solid option.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Naked Vine Guide to Buying Wine for Thanksgiving

We’re three weeks away from The Big Feed and you need to start thinking about buying wine. Since you’re the classy, thoughtful individual that you are, you actually give a rip about how the wine goes with food and you don’t want anyone to take a sip, and go “um…ew.”

Thanksgiving wine-buying can be challenging. At a standard dinner party, there’s usually a general theme or national cuisine you can pull ideas from. A traditional Thanksgiving meal presents you with bunch of flavors beyond turkey that usually don’t play well with grapes. Cheesy casseroles, sweet potatoes, various beans and legumes, yeasty rolls, and other homestyle favorites create a riot of flavors that simply aren’t conducive to a pause and savor pairing.

Your goal instead is to treat Thanksgiving like the gluttonous feast it is. We’re shooting for a selection of “good enough” wines to please a range of palates, yet give people enough options so they’re not making wine runs after the salad course. Here, for your grape-purchasing pleasure, are the Naked Vine’s steps to success:

FirstHow many wine drinkers at the table?
Get a rough count. Even if you have guests who have expressed that they don’t like wine, budget for them anyway. Assuming it’s too late to uninvite them, they’ll probably end up sneaking a glass or two anyway because they “just want to try it with food.” Worst case scenario: a couple of extra bottles get left over for slugging during cleanup.

I subscribe to the 80% rule. Let’s say you’ve got 10 guests. Eighty percent puts you at 8 bottles. Each bottle holds 5 glasses of wine, so you’ve got 40 glasses total to go around. In my experience, heavy and light imbibers tend to balance each other out. Adjust accordingly if you are cooking for a number of true teetotalers or if you know that you’ve got some professional lushes like your narrator at the table. Also, since most people bring at least one bottle with them, you should have a comfortable cushion.

Second – Start with bubbly.
My one hard-and-fast rule for Thanksgiving beyond the above calculation – start everyone off with bubbly. Toasting the start of the meal with a glass of bubbles wakes up everyone’s palates and appetites and gets everyone in a good mood. Also, since you generally don’t pour full glasses of sparkling wine, you’ll likely only need an extra bottle or two, max.

I’d recommend something like the Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico or my old Spanish standby Freixienet Extra Dry. Again, nothing complex -- think crisp, refreshing, and food friendly. Some of your guests might also prefer bubbles with your first course, whether it’s soup, salad, or something else.

Third – Taste the Rainbow
Now we get to the actual wines for dinner. We’re not going to mess with course-by-course pairings. That takes too much energy and besides, you might have to make a mad dash to the kitchen, frantically searching for your copy of your local newspaper to fan the smoke detector, which is still sounding incessantly after you left your oven mitt on the burner.

In most cases, I’d suggest getting three different types of wine. Why three? Like I said – we’re doing wine in broad brushstrokes here and people like to sample. Think about basic flavor profiles. We can immediately rule out super light whites like pinot grigio. They’ll get run over by the feast’s flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, avoid highly-tannic or oaky wines like most American cabernets or Chardonnays or big rustic French and Italian wines. We don’t need complexity to get in the way of the stuffing. The three profiles I use are:

Fruity and Flavorful Whites – For the white wine drinkers, I’d suggest whites with a lot of fruit flavor and usually a little sweetness. I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving Riesling. Chateau St. Michelle Dry Riesling  and Kung Fu Girl Riesling are a couple of easy to find choices. If you’d like to go German with your Riesling, look for bottles that are labeled “Trocken,” which means dry.

Light, Comfortable Reds and Rosé – Good middle of the road, “keep on pourin’” wines that pair up with almost any sorts of food, be it meat or fowl. I love my rosé, but for this occasion, avoid those beautiful, delicate flowers from Provence. Go with a fuller, more fruit-forward bottle – perhaps something from Italy like Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or a South American version like Montes Cherub Rose of Syrah from Chile.

If you can’t bring yourself to buy pink wine, then another quality option here is Beaujolais, specifically, Beaujolais-Villages. Thanksgiving is also the one time of year that I find it OK to buy Beaujolais Nouveau, which is usually released around then. Don’t get suckered by a sale and buy last year’s vintage, though.

Big, Boomin’ Reds – Because every table will have at least one person who likes to drink big ol’ reds, don’t leave them out. My go-to wine when I need something big, fruity, and rich is good old California Zinfandel. Seven Deadly Zins, Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend, and their other $10 cousins should do nicely. If you want to look beyond California, a Garnacha (Grenache) like Los Rocas from Spain or a Cotes-du-Rhone like M. Chapoutier will certainly fill the bill without giving folks big mouthfuls of tannin.

In my previous eight-bottle example, I’d probably get two bottles of the whites and three bottles of
each of the other two categories to start with. I find that folks tend to lean red as the night goes on. Obviously, you know your dinner guests better than I, so jigger as necessary. And remember – while you can send leftovers home, all remaining wine stays with the house!

Happy Thanksgiving!