Imbibe Live is a drinks industry event for all corners of the trade; for people who work with drinks in any way, shape or form, whether it’s serving them, writing about them, tasting them or buying them. And everyone knows that people who like drink are usually good people, which is probably the reason it’s such a darn fun event to go to!
I was there to network with some wine importers and to check out some of the masterclasses and tasting events, which are always a great opportunity to learn more and put those study notes into practice.
One of the first events of the day (on the Tuesday) was a Saké & Food Matching session with Federica Zanghirella, which I was pretty excited about after gaining a new found love for saké during a trip to Japan earlier this year. More and more sommeliers are becoming confident about suggesting saké as a pairing wine because it has revealed itself as the magical answer to foods that are difficult to pair with wine, such as artichoke and foie gras. But first, Federica explained, to understand how to pair saké, you need to understand what saké is.
Lots of people confuse saké for a spirit, but of course, this is fake news – it’s a fermented liquid, not a distilled one. Saké starts life as a special type of rice called saka mai (different to the rice used in cooking) and the grains are polished to remove the husks and leave the starch component in the centre of the grains, called shinpaku. The more highly polished the rice is, the more elegant, fragrant, delicate and complex the saké is. As saké is 80% water, the type of water and its quality is also a hugely important factor. The daiginjo and the junmai daiginjo styles are considered the best sakés – I tried a junmai daiginjo at a fancy dinner at the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo; like pure dew from a cloud.
The umami element in saké is the key to food pairings. Umami is a flavour enhancer, not a flavour, and it was discovered by the guy who found MSG in seaweed and brought it to market. How interesting! Once one unshrouds the mystery of this rice wine, they’ll get to know its enchanting ways, for example, sweetness in saké softens spice and provides a creaminess, dryness in saké contrasts saltiness and bitterness will soften and balance fishy flavours.
We tried four sakés, each with a different food – salt, artichoke, Parmesan and foie gras. The fruity and creamy Sanran Daiginjo smoothed and rounded the sensation of saltiness; the Iwaimai Daiginjo, with its higher acidity and tropical fruitiness, enhanced the flavours of the artichoke, and the intensely sweet and nutty Akashi-Tai Ginjo Umeshu was the perfect pairing with the rich liver pate. The ultimate revelation was the Akashi-Tai Junmai Ginjo Sparkling Saké with Parmesan – it was amazing. The light and refreshing saké, with its appley floral flavours, contrasted beautifully with the salty, creamy Parmesan – Federica announced it as a match made in heaven.
After the very enlightening saké session, I went to check out the Enotria stand, an importer that supplies a restaurant I work with. I had a mini-tasting, starting with an English sparkling rosé from Hattingley. Beautifully crisp with delicate notes of strawberry and raspberry – sweet dreams are made of this (ones of English garden parties and string quartets). We went onto a spectacular white that I’ve tried before, but would never say no to trying again – Ken Forrester’s multi-award winning Chenin Blanc, the FMC. Why FMC? Well, once when Ken was at a wine show, a fan of his wines asked where was ‘that f*cking marvellous Chenin?!’ And it really is! An iconic Chenin, it is honeyed, rich, creamy and complex – it really is gorgeous and known as one of the finest wines to come out of South Africa. We finished the mini-tasting with a Tuscan red, Aliotto from Tenute Lunelli. With a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Sangiovese, it’s a typically bold and structured Tuscan with cherry and spice. Lovely.
In the afternoon, I bagged myself a place at the Remarkable Rhônes tasting session with Matt Walls. I don’t know much about the Rhône yet, but it was very interesting to learn that the Southern Rhône and the Northern Rhône are pretty much two completely different regions that produce completely different wines! The Southern Rhône is mostly flat and because it’s on an old river bed, the soil is made of pebbles, sand, clay, sandstone and limestone. The climate is Mediterranean and the vines are trained on wires – everything is done by hand, so growing and tending to the vines requires a lot of hard work. In contrast, the Northern Rhône is a long, narrow steep valley with soils made of granite and schist and the continental climate makes it much fresher. 95% of Rhône wines are made in the Southern Rhône, where there are 21 grape varieties (usually blended), and 5% are made in the Northern Rhône, which are mostly unblended reds. The Northern Rhône is where the famous names originate from, like Côte-Rôtie, and all of the wines come from just eight crus.
Now, to the fun part – the tasting! We tried six different wines, the majority from 2016, which Matt tells us is a great year for Rhône wines. The perfect growing conditions that year means that the quality is fantastic, so there’s a top tip for you when you’re buying wines from this region! We tried two whites, the Colombo Saint-Péray La Belle de Mai 2016 and the Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2016. Saint-Péray is the most southerly cru in the Northern Rhône and this honeysuckle-scented, rich wine has won awards for its structured palate and fine balance. The Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is from one of the top estates in the Southern Rhône, and again is a rich white – a good food wine, it would be a nice match with a fatty, flavoursome pork belly.
We had a fab range of reds, from a so fresh and so clean Delas Ventoux 2016, to a nicely tannic Domaine des Carabiniers Lirac Rouge 2017, to very Northern Rhôney 100% Syrah, the Domaine des Lises Crozes-Hermitage Rouge 2016. The tasting culminated in a very special glass of 2015 Jean-Paul Jamet Côte-Rôtie, which apparently didn’t show quite correctly and would have benefited from decanting in some peace and quiet before the tasting. But, no can do at a demo at a huge drinks show, which is fair enough. I still thought it was pretty wowing and would be the perfect partner to a juicy rack of lamb or some oily baked aubergine. The winner for me, though, was the Lirac. A GSM blend (50% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 25% Mourvèdre), it was structured, fruity, spicy, velvety – it just had it all. And the Lirac whites are pretty special as well, so Matt tells us.
All in all, a successful visit to Imbibe, spent indeed imbibing to my heart’s content, with a few new things added to my shopping list: Akashi-Tai Junmai Ginjo Sparking Sake; Hattingley sparkling rosé and some lip-smacking Lirac rouge.