Exporation Sessions: Cheese x Sake, Vol 1 (Comte, Parmigiano, Viamala, Sheep ricotta, Fourme d'Ambert)

Exporation Sessions: Cheese x Sake, Vol 1 (Comte, Parmigiano, Viamala, Sheep ricotta, Fourme d'Ambert)

PrefaceBecause sake folk already know sake pairs well with cheese, this entry serves to hone that affinity, to fine-tune specific sake pairings with specific cheeses. In my experience, this level of detail is very hard to find for sake, and even in wine, you'll tend to come across such broad pairings as to be useless ("blue with port"? what blue? what port?) These details matter.

I worked with the cheesemongers at Cowbell Creamery, with whom I am a (most appreciative) neighbor, as well as my husband, a former cook and cheesemonger, along with the opinions and insights of Sunflower guests, many of whom are (or have been) in the food, beverage and taste professions themselves. 

Remember that taste is highly subjective. Although I am confident in the pairings I put forth here, you are not lacking in taste, skill, or ability if you disagree with them. That just means that your sense of taste is different from mine, and I hope you find your own cheesy fireworks.

30 Month Parmigiano Reggiano,  Bertinelli (Emilia Romagna, IT) 
Uehara Furosen Wataribune Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu (Shiga)

Cheese notes: salty, floral, buttery, chewy, raisin sweetness.

Sake notes: grilled pineapple,  lemon and lime zest, greengage plum, green mango, and tart, barely-ripe blueberries.

Pairing notes: The Parmigiano takes off the funky edge off the Furosen Wataribune, dials the acidity down, and makes the sake taste sweeter and milder, of macerated yellow plums and peak season strawberries. Floral notes in both sake and cheese are dialed up to 10. All of this beautiful interaction, without diminishing the parmigiano whatsoever. 

Viamala Schweizer Bergkase (Switzerland) 
Kidoizumi Hanafubuki Junmai Yamahai (Chiba)

Cheese notes: incredibly full flavored and full of crunchy crystals. Notes of maple, the very best grilled cheddar bits from a burger, wet hay, barnyard, grassy, earthy, roasted parsnips and beets, toffee, sugar. Fantastic mouthfeel and melt, it just turns to liquid gold in the mouth.

Sake notes:  Fuji apple, cherry blossom, candycap mushroom, wildflower honey, rainier cherry, cognac, Hawaiian Punch, Italian plum jam.

Pairing notes: this chewy, dense, fruity, high acid sake delivers an imaginary dollop of plum jam, a side of roasted hazelnuts and an entire garden pergola. Gorgeous, spectacular, expansive pairing. I still get all the nuance of the very complex Viamala but with Kidoizumi, it's like there's a whole snack board alongside it.
Additional pairing notes for Viamala:
  • with Kidoizumi Yamadanishiki- a same-same pairing: two of a kind. Blinding sun. The funky, super moldy rind of Viamala does not play well with the sake.
  • with Takacho Bodaimoto- overpowers the cheese even if the outcome is quite pretty for the bodaimoto.
  • with Kaze no Mori Tsuyuhakaze 80- not bad, nothing special either.
  • with Bar Time- pretty special, like having a dollop of plum jam on your cheese board.
  • with Hakkaisan Yukimuro- not bad, but the nuttier parts of the cheese get a little lost.
  • with Furosen Wataribune- super fascinating, completely changes, goes to intense muscat, a bitter floral, violet.


Black Sheep Creamery Fresh Sheep's Cheese (Washington, USA)
Heiwa Shuzo KID Junmai Ginjo Shiboritate (Wakayama)

Cheese notes: The cheese itself is tender, bright and tangy but not sharp, notes of fresh cultured cream, chestnut, and white mushroom, a little bouncy but melting quickly and softening to a delicate paste.

Sake notes: Melon, lemon-lime soda, fresh mochi, lychee jellies, condensed milk on shaved ice, apple cider, and a touch of white grapefruit.

Pairing notes: the cheese gets to do its light, Spring-infused, tangy, grassy dairy thing and the sake's sweetness is tamed, bringing out the most interesting melon-rind and white pepper notes in the sake. VERY good, thematically and structurally, a charming and welcome embrace of the greenness of Spring. All namazake worked well with this cheese, but the KID Shiboritate was particularly good.

Additional pairing notes for Black Sheep:
  • with Furosen Wataribune- beautiful, sweet, delicate, softens the cheese and the sake.
  • with Tenko 40- harmonizes texturally and structurally. The sheep cheese has a little more acidity and a touch of sheepy funk, while the Tenko has a bit of sweetness and soft rice to simmer it down. Good, but doesn't stop me in my tracks or introduce anything new.
  • with Kaze no Mori "Black" Tsuyuhakaze 80- tangy and interesting but seems to overwhelm and mute the cheese.
  • with Mutsu Hassen Isaribi - interesting, something a little odd is happening. With a sesmark cracker:  suddenly reminds me of nachos. The isaribi goes down like lemon water.
  • dipped in mirin then paired with Tedorigawa Neo 2021: really good, really evocative, but not quite there in terms of texture and fat. Needs something a little bigger boned for the high alcohol/sweetness sake. I'd love to try this with fresh ricotta or dressed stracciatella instead.

Comte 6-9 Months, Marcel Petite (Jura, FR)
Kirinzan Futsushu (Niigata)

Cheese notes: tender, bright but not acidic, notes of fresh cultured cream, sweet chestnut, sweet onion jam, and white mushroom. A little bouncy but melting quickly and softening to a paste.

Sake notes:  Clean like snowmelt, crisp like the sky after rain, nutty like freshly roasted chestnuts and sweet like freshly steamed rice.

Pairing notes: together, notes of coconut, nutmeg, sweet chestnut puree, toasted hay, and a zingy, fermented grain kind of acidity. The sake enhances the coconut vibes and takes me into a delicate creamy vadouvan curry territory with caramelized shallot, sultanas, and toasted coconut resonating through. Honestly, the two just synergize beautifully and you can taste both in crystal-clear focus when enjoyed together. A real pleasure to highlight two very special products at once: siblings from thousands of miles away.

This one took weeks to find, seriously. I tried every sake in my refrigerator and then some. I landed on one... (Hakkaisan Yukimuro), then another (Akishika Omachi), and another (Masumi Nanago), but I was never really happy with any of them, so I didn't serve it.
It took bringing in a new sake (Kirinzan Futsushu) and realizing that the flavor notes, balance, and energy of both products were aligned to give it a try...and finally being truly happy with the result. This is NOT an easy cheese to pair with! It's subtle, with fresh acidity, distinct, gorgeous, but quiet flavors you don't want to accidentally trample. Finding the right balance is hard, and while this pairing isn't doing something totally crazy and new, it does right by both sake and cheese, enhancing them so that they can be appreciated even more.

Additional pairing notes for Comte:
  • with Hakkaisan Yukimuro- The spiced, aged notes of Hakkaisan immediately plays off the nuttiness of the cheese, the unctuousness of the sake plays into the creamy unctuousness of the cheese. However, in later testing, several tasters found Yukimuro to be overpowering, particularly in its alcohol (17%, genshu) so this pairing never went live in Sunflower
  • with KID shiboritate- overwhelms the cheese and leaves you with an off flavor.
  • with Makiri Junmai Ginjo Kimoto Nama- overwhelms the cheese
  • with Mutsu Hassen Isaribi- unremarkable but not at all bad, mellows both, both do continue but are a slightly muddled version of each other.
  • with Furosen Wataribune- makes the acidity much more prominent, kind of overpowers the cheese, lets the sake shine though.
  • with Hyosho usunigori- takes the pairing in a lighter, sweeter, more floral direction, as if serving the cheese with wildflower honey, but still doesn't feel like it's quite there, a bit muddled.
Fourme d'Ambert, La Memee (Auvergne, FR)
Heiwa Shuzo KID Junmai (Wakayama)

Cheese notes: rich milk, fudgy chewy paste, mineral blue brightens and contrasts creamy texture. 

Sake notes: sesame seed, cream cheese, persimmon, almond slivers, mineral, black bread

Pairing notes: Rising sweetness, imaginary warm applesauce and brown butter, round, soft, finishing together with light cinnamon spice and sweet fuji apple with a sprinkle of puffed brown rice cereal. An absolute joy together, creating a totally unexpected and new flavor. 

Additional pairing notes for Fourme d'Ambert:
  • KID Junmai with Roquefort: overcrowds the roquefort, leaving only appley sake notes. Also seems to interfere in the enjoyment of the RF texture which is almost fluffy. With mirin on top, it makes the sake almost tasteless, flavorless, like water.