Home > Tasting Notes and Wine Reviews > Fran Kysela’s Mondovino 2013: Delicious Sake

Fran Kysela’s Mondovino 2013: Delicious Sake


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Mondovino is the annual portfolio tasting for Kysela Pere et Fils.  It is located in the company warehouse in Winchester, VA.  It is held on two five-hour days which you would need to attend both in order to taste the almost four hundred wines in addition to the sake and beer.  For our second year in a row Lou and I attended the first day.  Last year we focused on a selection of Champagne and white wines followed by a selection of red wines.  This year we felt we could be more selective and by skipping the more value-oriented bottles we could make time to taste sake.

Thus we found ourselves walking into the warehouse at the very start of the tasting to meet Jeremy Sutton.  Jeremy is a National Sale Agent whom I first met almost two years ago.  We have always emailed about the wines we have drunk but starting this past summer he started writing about sake for Jeremy attended the Sake Professional’s course in Chicago.  This is a three-day immersive course held by John Gautner of Sake World.  There were some 100 sake tasted in six focused sessions and at the end Jeremy emerged a Certified Sake Professional.  With glasses in hand Jeremy led us through a tasting of the sake portfolio.

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Sake is produced from rice.  There are some 100 varieties of rice which are used but these are specific to sake production and not for consumption.  The rice is first milled such that the outer protective layers are removed.  All of the sake we tasted had a polishing ratio of no more than 70% meaning that at least 30% of the outer portion had been milled away.  The milling removes fats and proteins which impede fermentation and affect flavor.  Rice with the least amount of milling makes heavier and fuller sake whereas those with the most milling are more delicate and complex.  After milling the rice is washed, soaked, and steamed.  Once cool it is sprinkled with koji mold.  Rice does not contain any sugars so it cannot directly ferment with yeast.  The koji mold converts the starch into sugar.  Added yeast then converts the sugar in to alcohol.  Over several stages more rice, koji, and water are added to form the mash.  The mash ferments for up to one month and must then be pressed.  There are typically three pressings (arabishiri, naka-dori, and seme) with the second press producing what is considered the best juice.  The sake is then filtered after which the vast majority are pasteurized.  Every bit of the process including the rice variety, polishing ratio, yeast selection, and temperature affect the aroma and flavor of the sake produced.

Only 20% of the sake produced is considered premium sake.  This range of sake is known as special designation sake or tokutei meishoshu and is organized in to six classifications.  These classifications are split between sake with no added alcohol known as Junmai or sake with added alcohol known as Honjozo.  Honjozo indirectly translate to “the original brewing method”  where alcohol is properly added.  Some brewers believe that adding a small amount of distilled alcohol in the final stages of brewing releases more aromatic and flavor compounds which are soluble in alcohol.  Thus at the bottom of the classification are Junmai-shu (at least 70% polishing ratio with no added alcohol) and Honjozo-shu (at least 70% polishing ratio with added alcohol).  The next step up in classification involves longer fermentation at colder temperatures with Junmai Ginjo-shu (at least 60% polishing ratio with no added alcohol) and Ginjo-shu (at least 60% polishing ratio with added alcohol).  The highest classification requires even more precision with Junmai Daiginjo-shu (at least 50% polishing ratio with no added alcohol) and Daiginjo-shu(at least 50% polishing ratio with added alcohol).

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We tasted through 17 sake representing a variety of brewers and classifications.  In Japan the annual hatsu-nomikiri is the event in which the condition of each tank of brewed sake is tasted.  Sake was originally brewed in cedar tanks with bamboo bindings so there was a greater chance they could be off.  Today glass or ceramic lined stainless steel tanks are typically used.  The tasting is used to decide which tanks to blend, whether or not to pasteurize, and also how long the sake needs to be aged.  The sake at Mondovino were presented with official tasting cups or kikizake-joko which are 180cc ceramic white cups with blue concentric circles inside.  The cup helps judge clarity which can be an issue with unpasteurized sake gone bad.  It turns cloudy and yeasty.  In this setting all of the sake looked clear and crisp with perhaps some showing some particulates.  For home enjoyment Jeremy recommends a wine glass.

It was somewhat a shock at first to encounter new aromas and flavors and never being quite sure how to note them.  There was quite a range of styles from the rustic, good fun of #410 Hoyo, Shinning Prince to the truly funky #412 Kamoizumi, Autumnal Elixer.  Some sake such as #411 Hoyo, Fair Maiden were perfumed with delicate mouthfeel but others such as Kysela’s own #420 Eikum, Water Lord had an amazing mouthfeel which was fat, viscous, and weighty.  The #406 Akitabare, Heaven of Tipsy Delight showed lovely floral fruit whereas #415 Kokuryo, Crystal Dragon show amazing amounts of sweet, berrylicious fruit.  Two of the selections were unpasteurized or nama.  These might be equated with the no-sulphur natural wine movement in that they are less stable and must always be stored at cool temperatures.  The #405 Akitabare, Spring Snow had a darker nose with a touch of earth and the #416 Masumi, First Run had a yeast and woodsy note which I thought was well done and interesting.

I highly recommend that you taste through the sake during the second day of Mondovino 2013.  Definitely take a look at Sake World for background information, which is where much of this information is sourced, and if Jeremy has a free moment, have him taste with you.  Most of these selections are imported by World Sake Imports but the #420 Eikun and #421 Gassan are imported directly by Fran Kysela.

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404 – Akitabare, Koshiki Junzukuri Northern Skies, Akita Prefecture – $27 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Gin no Sei, Polishing Ratio: 60%, Alcohol: 14.5%, Yeast Type: Association No.9.  The nose reveals good fruit, fat, and some heat.  The flavors are soft and round in the mouth, chalky, a little heat in the finish, and a long aftertaste.

405 – Akitabare, Shunsetu, Spring Snow, Akita Prefecture – $25.50 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Gin no Sei, Polishing Ratio: 60-64%, Alcohol: 14-15%, Yeast Type: Association No.9.  The nose is a little darker, perhaps a touch of earth, with the aromas standing out more.  In the mouth there is cool fruit at first, quite racy in the middle, and a shorter aftertaste.

406 – Akitabare, Suirakuten, Heaven of Tipsy Delight, Akita Prefecture – $69 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Yamadanis, Polishing Ratio: 60-64%, Alcohol: 14-15%, Yeast Type: Association No.9.  Aged two years in bottle.  There is good floral fruit on the nose without any heat.  It was very pretty in the mouth with flavors that follow the nose.  Some nuts.  There is a good aftertaste with some sweetness.

407 – Dewasansan, Green Ridge, Yamagata Prefecture – $36 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Dewasansan, Polishing Ratio: 50%, Alcohol: 15.8%, Yeast Type: Yamagata KA.  Some grass on the nose and a touch of heat.  In the mouth this big wine has lots of powdery flavors.

408 – Dewazakura, Izumi Judan, Tenth Degree, Yamagata Prefecture – $34 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Dewasansan, Polishing Ratio: 50%, Alcohol: 17.5%, Yeast Type: Yamagata YK-0107.  The nose reveals, juicy floral fruit.  In the mouth the flavors are more focused with a spicy finish and a little heat.  Neat stuff.

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409 – Dewazakura, Oka, Cherry Bouquet, Yamagata Prefecture – $34 (300 mL)
Rice Variety: Miyamanishiki and Yukigesho, Polishing Ratio: 50%, Alcohol: 15.5%, Yeast Type: Ogawa.  The nose reveals fruit and berries.  In the mouth there is big berry fruit at first then it rounds out with sweeter fruit and a fresh aftertaste.

410 – Hoyo, Genji, Tokubetsu Junmai, Shining Prince, Miyagi Prefecture – $28 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Kura no Hana, Polishing Ratio: 55%, Alcohol: 15.5%, Yeast Type: Association 901.  This was rustic, a touch woodsy, with good strength in the middle.  Good fun.

411 – Hoyo, Kura No Hana, Fair Maiden, Miyagi Prefecture – $33 (500 mL)
Rice Variety: Kura no Hana, Polishing Ratio: 45%, Alcohol: 15.5%, Yeast Type: Association 1601.  The more delicate nose is almost perfumed.  It was very pretty in the mouth with a good, delicate mouthfeel, and a little sweetness.

412 – Kamoizumi, Junmai Daiginjo, Autumnal Elixer, Hiroshima Prefecture – $31 (500 mL)
Rice Variety: Yamadanishiki, Polishing Ratio: 50%, Alcohol: 16%, Yeast Type: Setouchi 21.  Wow, the funky nose was complex with mushrooms.  In the mouth it was funky too with berry fruit, round flavors, a touch of heat, and a good aftertaste.

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413 – Kamoizumi, Junmai, Three Dots, Hiroshima Prefecture – $33 (900 mL)
Rice Variety: Hiroshima Hattan and Nakate Shinsenbon, Polishing Ratio: 58%, Alcohol: 16%, Yeast Type: Setouchi 21.  The nose was more subtle and darker.  There were sweet, ripe fruit flavors in the mouth, yeasty, good flavor, and a sake finish.

415 – Kokuryo, Tokusen Ginjo, Crystal Dragon, Fukui Prefecture – $42.55 (720 mL)

Rice Variety: 500 Mangozu, Polishing Ratio: 50%, Alcohol: 15.5%, Yeast Type: Kokuryu Yeast.  The nose was berry-licious.  In the mouth there were very sweet, berrylicious fruit, a restrained mouthfeel, then soft sweet fruit in the aftertaste.

416 – Masumi, Arabashiri, First Run, Nagano – $62 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Hitogokochi and Miyamanishiki, Polishing Ratio: 55%, Alcohol: 17-18%, Yeast Type: Alps.  This is unpasteurized and produced from first run juice.  The nose was yeast with rice.  There was a lot of character in the mouth with woodsy notes and a filling, good finish.  Well done and interesting.

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417 – Masumi, Nanago, Seventh Heaven, Nagano – $62 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Miyamanishiki, Polishing Ratio: 49%, Alcohol: 16%, Yeast Type: Association No. 7.  The nose was delicate.  The flavors were fat in the middle before focused berry fruit picks up some heat in the finish.

418 – Masumi, Okuden Kantsukuri, Mirror of Truth, Nagano – $30 (720 mL)
Rice Variety: Miyamanishiki, Polishing Ratio: 60%, Alcohol: 15%, Yeast Type: Association No. 9.  This gave up less with some cheese and woodsy notes.  OK.

419 – Tedorigawa, Iki Na Onna, Lady Luck, Ishikawa Precture – $48 (720 mL)
Polishing Ratio: 60%.  There was a subtle nose followed by a touch bright fruit in, what I would imagine, a modern style.

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421 – Gassan, Shimane Sake, Junmai Ginjo, Mountain-Moon, Shimane Prefecture – $36 (720 mL)
This had a subtle nose. In the mouth there was forward driving fruit and a rice note.  Not as complex.

420 – Eikum, Junmai-Shu, Water Lord – $36 (720 mL)
The nose revealed nuts and chocolate.  The chocolate returned in the mouth with a fat, weighty, thick mouthfeel.  It was smooth all around.  Lots of mouthfeel.

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