Japanese sake, with its rounded mouthfeel, subtle richness, delicate acidity and most importantly an abundance of umami, the fifth taste, makes it a very versatile alcoholic beverage. Cheese, a protein-rich food, with umami-charged compounds derived from the amino acids, and its creamy, rich texture, is just the perfect match with Japanese sake, and even better with the pure and clean Junmai sake by Katsuyama Shuzo.
Established in 1688 to brew top-quality sake for the feudal lords of the Sendai Domain, founded by Japan’s most famous and respected samurai, Date Masaume, today this venerable brewery, using a combination of state-of-the-art and time-intense ancient techniques, only produces Junmai-shu (1), that highlights clean umami taste and unique profile that pairs with any cuisine. Amongst its range of Junmai-shu, five representative styles were chosen to deliver the anticipated pairing with a selection of French and Italian cheeses (2).
Ken, Junmai Ginjo (50% seimaibuai (3) and 16% abv), produced by the fukuro-shibori (4) method, represents a whistle-clean, elegant and dry mineral style, with delicate acidity balancing the supple and rounded texture. The sake leaves the palate with a clean and dry minerality. The flavour profile is citrus, apple and a hint of pineapple. With this sake, we paired with Calisson, a raw goat milk cheese with an ashed rind, inspired by the famous diamond-shaped bonbon from Aix-en-Provence, le calisson d’Aix. The aromatic herbal and nutty character was more pronounced in its demi-affiné condition, leaving the palate with a delicate tangy and mineral note. This cheese tasted like a treat with Ken Junmai Ginjo.
Den (35% seimaibuai and 16% abv), also produced by the fukuro-shibori method, is a quintessential Junmai Daiginjo, with distinct fruity aromas of banana, grapes and apple, along with a well-balanced rich texture without the weight. It harmoniously delivers the umami taste.
This sake paired well with a number of the cheeses presented but it made a particularly decent pair with the washed rind cow milk cheese, Langres from the Grand Est region of France. The Langres at our tasting showed the distinct hollow (“fontaine”) at the top, with a wrinkled orange rind, and an ivory silky mousse-like core at the centre. At the rind, there was a pungent bacon character, with more fruity, creamy note in the core. The intense flavours and rich texture were balanced by the sake’s acidity. The sake’s richness complemented the rich texture of the cheese and the fruity character of the sake also matched the pungent notes.
An equally remarkable pairing was with the Brie de Melun. This raw cow-milk bloomy rind cheese with its pronounced barnyard, cep-like aromatics, subtle fruit notes, and rich, creamy texture, went remarkably well with Den. A great example of umami flavours at work.
A signature sake by Katsuyama Shuzo, Akatsuki, with 35% Seimaibuai and 16% alcohol, is a Junmai Daiginjo in its own class. This off-dry style sake represents the perfect harmony of minerality, flavour intensity, refreshing acidity and concentration, leaving the palate with a lingering umami finish. Produced in very small quantities using the Enshi-shibori (5) method, this sake reminded me of a delicate and elegant Mosel Riesling. The art of the production of this sake was in preserving flavour intensity while retaining the clean delicate texture. Two pairings stood out in particular.
For a more subtle pairing, we tried it with the Satonnay Aux Fleurs, a fresh raw goat milk cheese coated with floral petals (cornflower, rose, badiane, etc), produced in the Bourgogne region. The sweet floral notes of the cheese, with the fresh mineral note of the goat cheese, delivered a delicate pairing with Akatsuki, neither sake nor cheese overpowering the other. Like a stroll in the spring meadows!
For an absolute hands-down pairing, it had to be the Persillé de Tignes with the Akatsuki. This unique cheese in a cylindrical shape made by single producer, Paulette Marmottan in the French Savoie region, using raw milk from her herd of around 80 goats and 20 cows, stole the show with its complex flavour profile, tangy lactic, fruity and hazelnut at the core, expanding to damp cellar and mushroom at the rind, tingling the palate with its delicate saltiness and refreshing acidity. When paired with Aktasuki, the intensity of the flavours went up one notch. This was umami in symphony! Absolutely amazing.
The previous three sake styles were all made with Yamada Nishiki rice, but the last two sake styles were made using a table rice called Hitomebore.
En, Tokubetsu Junmai, has a distinct hint of sweetness and rice-based umami note. It has a balanced earthy note, with a nashi pear crunch at the finish. With this sake, we paired it with an Italian cheese, Pecorino Toscano Oro. This is a sheep milk cheese, handselected by the cheesemakers to be transformed into the Oro Antico style (referring to the golden hue of the paste of the finished cheese).
The aromatics were pineapple, dried fruit, lanolin with a distinct buttery note. The flavours were earthy and citrus, with a lingering pineapple note. This cheese showed a good level of salt and acidity. The pairing with En was superb, sake and cheese complementing each other in the earthy and fruity notes, and contrasting the light saltiness of the cheese with the delicate sweetness of the cheese. A pairing that did not tire the palate.
Lei Sapphire, Junmai Ginjo, with its alcohol level of 12% and 55% seimaibuai, is distinctly sweet and fruity. It reminded us of a Spätlese style Riesling. This style was created to suit the palate of those new to sake, but also as a sweet rich style to go with meat sauces with distinct sweetness. My favourite pairing for this sake was with Mimolette Extra Vieille, that never fails to remind me of soya sauce. Hailing from Nord-Pas-de-Calais of France, the Mimolette Extra Vieille with its 24 months of aging, showed pronounced savoury, earthy and yeasty notes, like marmite, overlaid with a caramelised tone, thanks to the hardwork of the microscopic cheesemites. This cheese was the epitome of umami. The texture was dense, hard, almost dry, with bitter finish. When paired with Lei Sapphire, it was like the sake coating each bite of Mimolette, resulting in an explosion of umami flavours in your palate. Heavenly! Still savouring this!
Finally we paired the Lei Sapphire with a subtle blue cheese, Gorgonzola Dolce, the cow milk blue cheese from Piemonte/Lombardia. This was produced by a family-owned farm Caseificio Tosi. Gorgonzola Dolce is a cheese made for gourmands, creamily indulgent like a dessert, with lively acidity, good dose of salt and mild blue notes just enough to tingle the palate, without being aggressive at all.
A beautiful end to this umami-filled experience. An experience to be remembered! (And repeated!!!)
I wish to thank Jacky Cheng, the sake expert of Berry Bros & Rudd HK, for guiding us through this special tasting of Katsuyama sake, and to Enrique Romera of Buonissimo (www.buonissimo.hk) for providing the gorgeous Italian cheeses!
1 Junmai sake is made with rice, water and koji, with no addition of alcohol
2 All the French cheese were sourced from La Cremerie, Wanchai and all the Italian cheeses from Buonissimo (www.buonissimo.hk)
3 Seimaibuai: Rice polishing rate, expressed as the amount of rice grain that remains after polishing
4 Fukuro-shibori: an ancient drip method that separates the clear sake by hanging in filter bags and allowing gravity to separate the clear sake from the sediments
5 Enshi-shibori: pressing using a centrifugal separator
About the author:
Ivy is an independent cheese and wine educator based in Hong Kong. She collaborates with quality suppliers of both cheese and wine to organise educational and creative tasting events.