5 Sakes Natural Wine Lovers Should Try
If you crave unbridled, vibrant natural wines, it’s worth tracking down some Yamahai and Kimoto sake, two older brewing styles that also offer bold flavors in a radically different context. To make them, brewers embrace natural lactic bacteria and wild yeast, rather than controlling the process with commercial lactic acid and cultivated yeast. Some brewers further reduce intervention in these traditional styles by cutting out pasteurization (creating Nama sake) and dilution (creating Genshu sake).
Kikisake-shi Jessica Joly, who leads the Soul of Sake series at New York’s SakaMai, explains that almost all sake is organic by default, as brewers commonly partner with local farmers and avoid pesticides. But Kimoto and Yamahai require even greater commitment, reviving traditional techniques from before the rise of modern brewing methods and technology.
To make Kimoto, brewers mash the starter with wooden poles to introduce more oxygen and encourage lactic bacteria. Kimotos often lean savory, tasting of tangy yogurt mixed with ripe fruit, nuts or oats, and they’re sturdy enough to stand up to rich meaty pairings. For Yamahai, brewers allow the starter to ferment uninhibited, creating lactic acid naturally over a longer period of time. With an aggressive mushroom-like funk and earthy punch, Yamahai is excellent for pairing with oily fish and strong cheese.
Labor-intensive Kimoto and time-intensive Yamahai are relatively costly compared to modern techniques. “If you don’t have the skilled labor necessary to produce them, they can go bad,” Joly says. The styles make up only a small fraction of sake produced in Japan today, and even fewer bottles make their way to the States. Even so, they’ve developed a cult following in recent years, making them worth seeking out. “It’s all the chefs at SakaMai drink,” Joly jokes.
Here are a few bottles of Yamahai and Kimoto to hunt down immediately.
Full-bodied, mushroomy funk and deep earthiness make this bottling from the old-school Tengumai (founded in 1823) a great arbiter of the Yamahai style.
This equal parts sweet and savory Kimoto from the standard-bearing brewery Daishichi is total comfort drinking, with uni, caramel corn and dates complemented by touches of licorice and toasted nori.
Radical toji Philip Harper embraces wild yeast to create this brash, unpasteurized and undiluted Yamahai Nama Genshu, which bursts with soy sauce and overripe kiwi. Joly describes the mouth-watering Red Label as “slap in the face powerful.”
It’s not common to see a Daiginjo Yamahai, since the strong, funky flavors of the style can outshine the delicate flavors of highly polished rice, but this rare bottling is worth checking out for its lush red apple, sweet cotton candy and touch of fatty butter.
Made by Miho Fujita, one of the few women in the sake industry, alongside toji Toshi Yokomichi, this Kimoto offers tangy Greek yogurt mixed with sour Haribo fruit candies and a touch of cinnamon, before a clean, lemony finish.