Value Vino: Getting to know Japanese bubbles

Sparkling saké, who knew?

Count me among those who didn’t—until I happened into TBA, the bar run by chef James Moore and his barman Jonny Yumol on North St. Mary’s, and found the Shichi Goh, a cocktail made with a house-infused pineapple gin, lemon and, yes, sparkling saké. Unlike anything I’d had before, it was a very pretty drink—and I mean that in only the best possible way. And, despite the fact that there’s a lot left to learn about still saké, it served as the catalyst for a quest.

Apparently I’m not the only one intrigued by the notion of Japanese bubbles. Imbibe, the drinks mag that was a sponsor of the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, recently listed “5 to Try,” among them the Gekkeikan Zipang Junmai sparkling saké I found on the shelf at Saglimbeni Fine Wines. Junmai is a style of still saké that utilizes highly polished rice, and the result in bubbly form is delicate, nutty and yeasty with aromas and flavors of citrus, pear and lychee. Like most of the bottles I tasted, it doesn’t have the bubbly punch of Champagne; the soft sparkle is closer to what you may find in a spritzer—but the fizz factor works in context. At a low 7 percent alcohol (due to early stopping of fermentation; most still sakés are at least double that), it nevertheless has enough punch to be a strong cocktail candidate.

Another of Imbibe’s recommendations, the Ozeki Hana-Awaka sparkling saké, can be found on the shelves at the larger Spec’s stores and on the voluminous saké list at Sushihana where I recently tried both this and the Ozeki Sawa Sawa with owner Howard Hu. Both were more floral than the Zipang; Imbibe says “honeysuckle,” and I won’t argue with them. These bottles are also a little sweeter but still very clean tasting. “To be honest, these aren’t selling well,” says Hu—not what I wanted to hear, of course. These deserve to sell better and any of the above would likely make a good introduction to the world of saké sparklers.

Here’s one not to fall for, though (maybe I’m pissed because it cost me $17): A cutesy name is about all the Poochi-Poochi sparkling saké has going for it (it apparently has to do with the sound of bubbles popping). For starters, it’s cloudy—which is perfectly respectable in still saké but just doesn’t seem appropriate to a sparkler. (Note: Some sources suggest that much sparkling saké is naturally cloudy, but that wasn’t my experience.) Its bubble quotient is also so low as to be almost undetectable. And there’s nothing but maybe a hint of melon to the flavor profile. All that (allegedly) sparkles is not swell, alas.

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