Two Things Namazakes are not:
- Namazakes are not to be served warm. Just as they are stored chilled, they should be served chilled as well; warming them will only cook off all those cherished aromas and complexities.
- Namazakes are not unfiltered sakes. Unfiltered nigori sakes are cloudy because the rice particles are not removed from them, but are still pasteurized.
By Jim Clarke
Cheese fans have a dilemma: how to get their hands on the unpasteurized cheeses of Europe, which by law aren’t supposed to be imported into the US. Sake fans, until recently, had a similar problem: getting a hold of namazake — unpasteurized sake. Fortunately, there’s no legal difficulty involved; it’s simply a matter of careful shipping and refrigeration — a challenge that enthusiastic and conscientious importers have recently taken on and conquered.
Namazakes are delicate — hence the need for careful refrigeration — so it’s easy to think of them as being susceptible to contamination. However, the real problem is already inside the bottle. The yeasts and enzymes that helped create the sake are still there, alive and waiting to spring back into activity; all they really need is warmth. A few namazakes even have a slight effervescence, similar to some German Rieslings — a result of residual activity on the part of the yeasts. But more aggressive biological activity will lead to spoiled sake: cloudy, cloying, and sour.
The differences between pasteurized and unpasteurized sakes, while not extreme, are readily apparent, although some exceedingly fragrant daiginjos come close for aromatic intensity and complexity. Floral and fruity aromas dominate, but a green touch of herbs or a gentle nuttiness are the real calling cards of those living enzymes. A subtle pepperiness is also common, and the acidity — often invisible or at least extremely obscured in most sakes — takes on a tangy edge, especially on the finish. This actually makes namazakes more accessible to many wine drinkers, who are used to a cleansing acidity in their white wines (though namazakes never approach the mouthwatering extremes of a tart Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet, and, for that matter, there’s generally some balancing sweetness as well).
Incidentally, acidity is so successful and important to wine drinkers that many will declare that a dry sake, without any sugars perceptible on the palate, is sweet, because it lacks that acidity. We’re used to acidity cleansing our palate; for sake brewers, while acidity can be an important flavor component, it doesn’t play the same role in creating a balanced and enjoyable beverage that it does in wine.
I find that their body and tang also make namazakes very useful at the table. Given their freshness and complexity, the lighter versions make good aperitifs, and also work well with sushi and sashimi. The acidity, however, means that namazakes can also stand up to tempura — a dish that the Japanese usually enjoy with beer. Many Western dishes will also pair well: salads with vinaigrette dressings, pizza or tomato-based sauces, or fish and chicken dishes with a strong herbal component.
Namazakes are generally seasonal brews, so availability will vary through the year. Also make sure you’re ordering the “nama,” as many of these sakes appear in a pasteurized version with pretty much the same name.
- Kaika “Shiboritate” Nama Junmai, Tochigi Prefecture
- Light, fruity, refreshing, and gently tangy. Aromatics include melon, strawberry, and tangerine, with some complementary cherry blossom and wild herb notes.
- Otokoyama “Yukishibare” Nama Junmai, Hokkaido Prefecture
- A full-bodied and dry sake, with great caramel, malt, and cardamom touches topped off by vanilla and tropical fruit notes like pineapple and mango. A more powerful approach to namazake, with good spice on the finish.
- Masumi “Arabashiri” Nama Junmai Ginjo, Nagano Prefecture
- Full, with sweetness reined in by lemon curd acidity, this sake shows a great butterscotch aroma surrounded by notes of hazelnut, baked pear, and lemon zest. Superb length.
- Dewazakura “Oka” Nama Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata Prefecture
- Lighter, with lots of floral and herbal notes as well as fruity touches of melon and peach. Soft, and on the sweet side.
- Sato no Homare “Kakunko” Nama Junmai Daiginjo, Ibaragi Prefecture
- Medium-bodied and very fragrant, with great length and elegance. Shows a wide range of fruity notes: melon, strawberry, pineapple, and pear, plus some floral touches and light anise and vanilla notes on the palate and a citrusy finish.
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