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Sake Spotlight - Alex Vanderburgh Challenges Two Dai Ginjos

sake spotlight may 2008"Sake Spotlight" is a unique section within the Newsletter that takes a closer look at specific sakes that may be purchased at True Sake. I approach different professionals within the industry to give their perspectives and insights to the how, what and why's for very special sakes. These insiders are importers, brewers, authors, sake sommeliers, or just enthusiasts who will take your knowledge base a little further. What I like about this segment is that often my review is quite different than that of the guest professional's adding to the point that there is no right or wrong when discussing your opinion about sake.

Alex Vanderburgh is a Japanophile of note who was bitten by the martial arts bug that bites so many. He developed a martial arts / emotional intelligence combination program to youth all over the bay area. The programs are in elementary, Middle Schools, and at a national HMO. Alex holds a Shodan (first Degree) black belt in Kenpo Karate, a Shodan in Okinawan Kobudo, (weapons) and a Sandan (third degree black belt) in Aikido. Basically he is one of my more bad-ass costumers who came to sake with the same zest and zeal as he did to martial arts. I first started taking note of Alex when he would come into the store with list upon list. Everybody knows that I love folks with lists. Alex's list was compiled of the 50 brews that I recommended trying in my book, plus a secondary list of sakes from John G's book, and a personal list of sakes tasted in Japan. Is Alex a sommelier - No! Is he a writer - No! Is he an authority - No! But he is passionate - extremely passionate about sake and that is why I asked him to pick a brew or two that jumped out at him on his journeys.

Alex provided me a list of sakes that he felt compelled to write about. I said whooooaaaaaa - way too many! But two brews stood out and I challenged Alex to compare and contrast two very different Dai Ginjos that we sell at True Sake. Most consumers pigeon hole Dai Ginjo into the soft/light/layered category, but few have been overpowered by big and bombastic premium brews. So Alex took the bait and herewith is his review of two Junmai Dai Ginjos - tigers of differing stripes.

Tail of Two Dai Ginjos- Harushika and Senpuku KuraAlthough I am new to the world of Sake- just finishing my first year- I could not resist the pun for this comparison. I am still struggling for the words that describe how radically different these two are- yet both wonderful in their own ways. They are both classified as Dai Ginjo, and both have a 50% seimeibui on their labels, but taste and feel like two different worlds. Side by side Senpuku Kura is 5 weight classes away. As a martial artist I would have to say that if they had to fight it out in the ring Senpuku Kura would knock Harushika out in one girlfriend absolutely loved Harushika and hated Senpuku Kura.

Where Senpuku Kura is bold, with a full body and a tail that lasts for days, Harushika was light, reminiscent of Yaegaki's Mu (which she also likes) It tricks you into thinking you are drinking water for a second, then suddenly the nuances start to appear and it blossoms into an amazing watercolor painting of flavor. Part of my brain wanted to find the reasons, the facts, the why this clear liquid in this bottle, that looks just like that clear liquid can possibly taste so amazingly different.

I did find, after checking the details, that Senpuku Kura lists on the label it is made from "senbonishiki rice" which I could not find in any references for in my 6 sake books. Many sake are made with Yamadanishiki, some with Omachi, or several other sake rices- but I have not so far found much about this varietal. (With my luck I will learn that it is just another way of saying Yamada nishiki in Japanese) Of course, there is the water, I am sure the water in Nara, near the pacific ocean, must have different characteristics than the water in Hiroshima, on the east side.

The SMV did not offer much in the way of clues, with Harushika at +2.5 and Senpuku Kura at +3.0 Ultimately I am left appreciating the mystery- and the magic of the sake making process itself. Who knows what secrets the Toji have in making each one of these two sake. I realize now I must taste these two again- side by side- (of course- after I recover from April 15th!) I found that Harushika earned a place at the dinner table in Noe valley- while Senpuku Kura and I went off to my tent in the Marin Headlands. It went quite will with my backpacking staple meal of Ramen and beef jerky while huddled in my tent- and kept me warm in the wind and rain- the bold flavor and body able to match the elements.

Harushika stayed in the dry warm home in the city- like my significant other- who thinks that "roughing it" means a Bed and Breakfast in Mendicino- not interested in howling wind and rain. Perhaps this metaphor best describes the differences in these two sakes. Where Harushika is subtle and delicate, Senpuku Kura is bold and beefy. Where Harushika is urban and sophisticated, Senpuku Kura is wild and wooly- yet all within a range of parameters that are similar, both have a sense of refinement, layered, complex and interesting flavors- with a lingering note of what I can only so far call something that reminds me of a wintergreen lifesaver.

Well done Alex! Now I'd love to answer all of your questions and ponderings as to why these brews differ - the secrets of the rice (yes the rice is a blend and not just Yamadanishiki only), the secrets of the water (one is vastly harder than the other), and the secrets of how the tojis tweaked rice of the same milling percentages to taste entirely different in concept (one is a genshu - undiluted sake - with roughly an 18% alcohol content) but I will leave these up to you to discover on your own! Nevertheless here are my brief store reviews for these two brews:

Harushika "Spring Deer"
From Nara Prefecture.
Junmai Dai Ginjo.
SMV: +2.5 Acidity: 1.3
When was the last time that you smelled watermelon and caramel in the same scent? You will also catch a feint hint of sweet rice and rose pedals. Spring Deer is a terrific example of silky Dai Ginjo that has tons of flavor in a creamy and velvety package. It is almost like drinking flavored water. There is a light gooeyness that is neither sweet nor dry just round and silky. It is as soft as a sake comes. So quiet yet so boisterous in feel and complexity. Balanced perfectly this is truly clever Dai Ginjo that explores the veils and nuances of sake.
WORD: Silky
WINE: Soft Reds/ Light Whites
BEER: Blonde Ales
FOODS: Very simple dishes with light flavors, fish mousse, soft buttery cheeses, steamed crab, briny oysters.
Senpuku "Kura" - "Wine Cellar Of 1,000 Fortunes" 
From Hiroshima Prefecture.
Junmai Dai Ginjo.
SMV: +3
Rice: Yamadanishiki/Omachi-Hattan milled to 50%.
This Dai Ginjo has a nectarine and dried fruit nose with a slight hint of coconut. It is dry for a Dai Ginjo and this manifests itself with a springy start and middle-mouth of grass and aromatic flavorings. Vivid and gripping - the viscosity is thick and abundant and the full-bodied richness is not lost on a subtle acidity. Definitely a red wine drinker's Dai Ginjo with lots of flavor and character.
WORD: Bold
WINE: Big Reds
BEER: Guinness/Stouts
FOODS: Baked eel, scallops with broccoli, white fish with ponzu, anything off of the grill, tempura.
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