When in doubt about what wine to pair with a meal, often the adage “What grows together goes together” supplies an acceptable approach. Serve a wine indigenous to the region your dish hails from and you will at least have a pairing that has long been a convention. It is better to be accused of being conventional than wrong I suppose.
But rules are made to be broken according to another adage. Sometimes the best pairing has nothing to do with what grows together.
Although contemporary Japanese eat cheese as snacks or on pizza, it isn’t incorporated into traditional Japanese cuisine. Yet sake and cheese can make an excellent pairing at least in theory. The fermentation process that Sake undergoes creates lactic acid which of course is also a main component of cheese. The lactic acid contributes to the aromas and flavors in cheese as well as the creamy texture and yogurt-like aromas in Sake. And both aged cheeses and Sake are high in umami. According to flavor pairing theory, foods that share flavor molecules will harmonize well. So this should work.
I had a chance to test the theory at the Society of Wine Educators Conference with Master of Sake Toshio Ueno. Of course not any Sake will go with any cheese. Here are the pairings we tested:
Nanbu Bijin Tokubetsu Junmai with Pecorino Romano
The nutty, salty flavors of the cheese and the dry mouth feel complemented the soft, full bodied Sake that emphasized fruity notes mostly by staying out of the way of each other and creating balance in the mouth. A good but not extraordinary pairing.
Kikusui Junmai Ginjo with aged Gruyere
This is a gentle Sake, very light weight and fruity. The Gruyere’s developing earthiness was subtle and needed a sake that was not too assertive but with enough fruity quality to match the sweetness of the cheese. This was a perfect pairing perhaps the best in this lineup.
Born Gold Junmai Diaginjo with Blue cheese
The sake showed complex green apple and peach on the nose, quite pronounced and juicy. Creamy and full on the palate and loaded with umami with with plenty of acid to balance the weight. It all melded perfectly with the blue cheese. The flavors in the sake were assertive enough to stand up to the cheese yet on the palate it was all melding and integrated. Another great match.
Tengumai Yamahai Junmai with Havarti
A funky nose, lots of mushroom and earth with a buttery mouthfeel and quite a bit of sweetness on the palate. The havarti was young and the buttery mouthfeel matched that of the sake but I thought the earthy notes in the sake were fighting the cheese and burying its flavors. This sake is best with meat or fermented fish. It needs strongly flavored food.
MIO Sparkling Shirakabegura with Manchego aged about 3 months
Yes, they make a sparkling sake which tastes like Moscato, light, fruity, and refreshing. It was fine with the nutty, slightly tangy flavors of the cheese but there wasn’t much synergy. OK but not remarkable.
Sho Chiku Bai Creme de Nigori with Brie
Assertive sweetness with coconut notes and a slight smoky quality for this Sake. It was fine with the Brie because Brie is so mild it won’t fight other flavors. The problem with Brie is that it coats the mouth making it harder to taste the flavors in the beverage you pair it with. I thought it perhaps dulled the flavor of the sake a bit but otherwise the pairing work.
Mr. Ueno advised against pairing sake with goat cheese or Camembert I have no first hand experience with those pairings.
So in conclusion, in general sake and cheese pair nicely when done thoughtfully. For beverage and food pairing enthusiasts there is much here to explore; it’s worth adding to your list of more and more things to learn.