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Cherry Blossom & Sake Dinner 2023

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Read about our collaboration with Zenkuro Sake to deliver the inaugural Zenkuro Sake and cherry blossom dinner at The George, Christchurch as part of our Winemakers’ Series.

 

Images by IBK Photography | Words by Isaac Wilson

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“Before serving we gently tip the bottle,” advises Zenkuro Sake’s toji/master brewer Dave Joll as gravity awakens the fine layer of settled rice sediment creating a sake snow globe in the upturned bottle and milky-white blooms envelop the sake’s diamond clarity.

Served in a tall shot glass Queenstown-brewed White Cloud Nigori Tokubetsu Junmai confides notes of toasted sesame and delicate mushroom while the now-suspended lees add a luxuriously languid viscosity and silken creamy mouthfeel.

Emboldened with classic Junmai flavours there’s a delicate dance at play on the palate with the faint acid tingle on opening making way for an intriguing, richly structured body hinting at tropical whispers of coconut cream.

Paired with The George hotel’s executive chef Ryan McKenzie’s first main course of pork belly it’s a masterful match with the sake’s clean, dry leanings cutting through the rich succulence of the pork. Crowned with golden halos of crackling atop melting rendered fatty layers the elevated Kiwi classic is studded with glistening jewels of sharp roasted green apple gel and McKenzie’s nod to the Land of the Rising Sun, a velvety salty-sweet miso-infused kumara puree which both mirrors and draws out the sake’s exquisite lingering earthen umami finish.

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While New Zealand plays catch up to the world’s growing obsession with Japan’s iconic beverage, it’s no surprise the culinary leaders and early adopters at Christchurch’s The George hotel have launched the 2023 season of their coveted Winemaker Dinner Series with Zenkuro Sake – a label which has graced the award-winning hotel’s visionary wine list for almost as long as Joll has been brewing it. The pairing has filled the en pointe elegance of the hotel’s exclusive private dining room with a thrilling mix of the city’s leading tastemakers, connoisseurs in the know and sake aficionados.

Even the city’s iconic cherry blossom trees lining Hagley Park have come to the party, erupting in a riot of pale pink petals, as if on command, and scattering their delicate confetti across the city in celebration. It’s a welcome many guests enjoy en route to this evening’s event at what is surely one of Christchurch’s premier locations. Itself an iconic city fixture, New Zealand’s industry-leading boutique luxury hotel The George commands peerless views over both the Avon River and Hagley Park. Stately, yet understated, tonight it is a veritable beacon of refined luxury resplendent in the early evening light following a recently renovated black facade awash in a golden louvered glow.

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The timeless union of black and gold continues inside, on the table and in the glass, choko and masu courtesy of Joll’s gong-collecting sakes and McKenzie’s gastronomic genius.

The intersect of Joll’s twin obsessions – Japan’s national drink and New Zealand’s national game – Zenkuro (translating to ‘all-black’) Sake has been stirring up the international sake fraternity since Joll first combined Queenstown’s glacial water with premium polished Japanese koji rice 17 years ago.

None more so than with the cloud-piercing lofty heights of his aptly named gold-winning Aoraki Junmai Daiginjo.

Chilled and served in a wine glass, it’s our first sake of the evening and its crystalline, gold-kissed hue and delicate bouquet of sun-warmed stone fruit and fresh-cut melon rind have us at kampai. Paired with McKenzie’s amuse bouche of ocean fresh line-caught snapper lightly cured in a precision-controlled maelstrom of salty-sweet-sour yuzu dressing and creamy nuttiness of toasted sesame the fish riffs on the sake’s classical coy fruit flourishes while a sumptuous, blurred mineral line segues to an impossibly elegant and satiating fresh finish.

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There’s a sake for every occasion and cuisine confides Joll as the precision plated duck liver parfait entree is placed in front of us in a wave of sweeping black shirt-clad ninja efficiency by an ever-present, but seldom noticed, front of house team. We’re drinking in the full-bodied charms of Zenkuro’s Wakatipu Sleeping Giant Junmai Ginjo, this time served warm from heated black glazed ceramic tokkuri (pitchers) which gently transfer their warmth through the room-temperature sake, as is customary, and poured into matching choko (sake cups). It’s also customary, we learn, to pour for your companions and never yourself and is the ultimate dinner party icebreaker forged by the generosity of new-found friends.

Much like the sake’s namesake, the Junmai Ginjo is a tightly refined force of nature with swagger for days. Its earthen dry finish, woven through with a trace of astringency, perfectly dissects the umami heft and mouth-coating unctuousness of McKenzie’s parfait while sparking with the delightful green pineapple intensity of the accompanying quince gel.

 

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Epitomising boutique, artisan small batch production Zenkuro Sake brews just 7,000 litres of sake a year, much of it using ancient, labour-intensive techniques no longer practiced in Japan. This is especially true of its highly-awarded, and the evening’s standout, Drip Pressed Shizuku Shibori Junmai Ginjo. Served lightly chilled in a small glass sitting inside a traditional square masu cup, the generous pours delight as the sake overflows glasses into cups creating two drinking vessels. The tradition ignites much conversation, pouring and sharing of best practice drinking techniques between decadent sips of the sake’s snow-capped mountain-fresh purity. Its faint tropical nose piques subtle exotic fruit suggestions while a luxurious mouthfeel and rounded body tempered by a faint acid etch develops into thigh-slappingly good, lively and dynamic finish reminiscent of toasty rice and faint floral jasmine.

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Paired with McKenzie’s deceptively simple chargrilled chicken, it’s a culinary masterclass in subterfuge that not only subverts the expectation of our second main course, but also belies some next level technique and exquisite flavour harmonies pushing the sake into the stratosphere.

The delicate succulence of the chicken breast and its smokey charred notes heighten the sake’s brighter flourishes while the creamy, buttery potato puree, sweet freshness of edamame and burnt salted toffee tang of caramelised soy dressing train a spotlight on the blisteringly endearing sake.

The revelry flows into our fifth and final course as blushingly red-pink Zenkuro Plum Sake gently frosts wine glasses in a light condensation and artistry-plated Manuka honey cheesecake appears in front of us, like each unforgettable course before it.

Despite its blush, the plum sake is a bright and brazen refresher, lightly fruity on the nose and running a lattice of sweet, salty savoury on the palate. Infused with the bittersweet tartness of the brewery’s own plums and laced with local Manuka honey it’s a match made in culinary heaven with McKenzie’s deconstructed masterpiece.

Almost too good to eat, the silken-airy-creamy contradiction of the half sphere of Manuka-spiked ‘filling’ sits perched on a throne of earthen pistachio crumbs adorned with ruby-bright raspberry gel and the nougat chew of freeze-dried honey. It’s a fitting finale and celebration of the night the Land of the Long White Cloud met the Land of the Rising Sun, and an evening sure to live on long after we say our final sayonaras.

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