You know you’re doing well when chef Ferran Adrià asks your advice about food. And for the humble French-Canadian François Chartier, fresh off the back of winning the title of World’s Best Sommelier at the Sopexa Grand Prix in Tokyo in 1994, it was almost too much. He tried to hang up the phone thinking it was a joke his friends were playing on him.
But it was in fact the beginning of a four-year stint working with Adrià at El Bulli in Catalonia, where the young Chartier would suggest the final pieces to his gastronomic puzzles; it was also the beginning of a new science he would call ‘molecular harmonies’.
Although not a scientist, Chartier has made a name for himself globally as an aromatic expert. He took a scientific approach to identifying and matching flavour molecules in food and wine.
Being a cook, he says this process came naturally and he says he could never understand how a sommelier could expect to master wine pairing without understanding cooking.
In 1994, Chartier started to study sake for the first time, unravelling the complex and intriguing national beverage of Japan. His agent in Japan introduced him to the Glion Group and he was engaged to work on a perfume project for the company.
It wasn’t until 15 years later, when Glion bought Tanaka Shuzo, one of the oldest sake breweries in Japan, that Chartier’s skills were really maximised as he was asked to assist with a new direction for the 250-year-old brewery. On his first visit to the brewery in Miyagi prefecture, he asked the toji (head of the brewery) to leave him in a room alone with all his sakes. Three hours later, a blend was produced and the toji proclaimed: “This is the sake I have been trying to make for years!”
Despite being the key to some of the world’s great beverages – including wine, Champagne, Cognac and Sherry – blending is not commonly used in sake production. Chartier’s take was the first in what is fast becoming a revolution for the sake market.
With the number of breweries on the decline, but with new records for sake exports each year since 2010, Chartier saw an opportunity to make a sake for wine lovers. With that, the Tanaka 1789 x Chartier (tanaka1789xchartier.com) project was born.
Through his skills as a master blender, he creates sakes with more depth and character than traditional styles. Chartier believes the key to great sake is great variety, and he achieves this by brewing around seven different sakes, all with different polishing ratios (seimaibuai), different yeasts (kubo), and different fermentation temperatures to create sakes with more acid and more body. He believes wine drinkers need acid, and has taken inspiration from the wines of Burgundy and Loire, creating a beverage with elegance, freshness and vivid acidity, while retaining the soul of sake.
Located in the rich, fertile plains north of Tokyo, Miyagi is one of the most famous sake-producing regions in Japan. The crystal-clear and fresh waters of the melting snow, as well as cool, moist temperatures blowing down from the Ōu Mountain Range to the north, make this an ideal place to produce the sake.
Chartier and collaborator Nicolas Roché have adapted the process of handcrafting the sakes at Tanaka Shuzo, with the help of the toji, Morikawa San. Blend 001 2018 from the Tanaka 1789 x Chartier project is made up of three rices – Miyamanishiki, Toyonishki, and the locally grown Kuro no Hana. Heavy polishing of the proteins, fats and lipids on the outside of the grain is typical for premium sake production, however, Chartier employs less polishing to allow for more acid and body in his blends.
The ‘so-haze method’ is used for propagating koji (the mould that coverts the starch into fermentable sugar), again leading to more acid, however, a small amount of white koji is also used, rather than the typical yellow koji, which creates a softer mouthfeel.
Yamahai and Kimoto methods are used for the starter to create lactic acid naturally (rather than artificially) and give a more powerful mouthfeel.
Miyagi B3 yeast is used to highlight the identity of the prefecture and provide a long aftertaste, alongside the well-used Kyokai No 6 and No 7, which both provide richness and length.
The yeasts, along with water, are the real “sake terroir” according to Chartier. The fermentations are made in separate batches – some at cooler temperatures leading to aromas and sharp acidity reminiscent of Sancerre sauvignon blanc, some at slightly higher temperatures giving more Montrachet chardonnay textures and flavours. The sake is then pasteurised once at 58°C, assuring quality and stability, and minimising any deviation of aromas.
Then comes the blending. Chartier undertakes three rounds of blending as the sake ages for 13 months in tank. This process allows the sake to settle, for flavours to develop and for micro-oygenation to take place.
Their first sake on the market is Blend 001 Junmai, and has ageing potential, which for the world of sake is unheard of. Usually, sake is best drunk 1-12 months after bottling depending on the style. How long can Blend 001 be aged for?” “There’s no expectation,” says Chartier. “The acidity, texture and umami will all slowly continue to evolve into nutty and sotolon (maple syrup/caramel) subtle aromas.”
When tasting, I was advised to let the sake sit in a Montrachet glass for 10 minutes to allow it to “come back to life”. The first thing I noticed was how aromatic it was – aniseed, coriander, fresh basil – and then the initial kick of alcohol as it touched my tongue.
Weighing in at 16.5% ABV, this is slightly more than a strong Aussie shiraz, but the initial weight subsided as my mouth adjusted. The mouthfeel was dense, round and creamy with a vivid acid finish refreshing my palate each time.
As the sake sat in the glass, we got talking about “time pairing” and how the sake can change flavours depending on the temperature it’s consumed at. Evolving during our discussion, it took on more lactone characteristics reminiscent of a chardonnay with peach, pear, coconut and almond milk, and became more full bodied.
Finally after being out for some time, the nose displayed more of a cooked rice note, with more umami and more sweetness on the palate. Chartier points out that different food matches can be paired at different times, all with just one glass of sake. Although, I would probably prefer three.