Umeshu: Japanese Wine for People Who Hate Wine

I once read somewhere that umeshu, wine made from the ume (pronounced "woo-may") fruit, was "wine for people who hate wine." I can't personally fathom anyone who hates wine -- perish the thought! -- but the sweet Japanese wine might indeed tempt the palates of those who find some red wines too tannic, some white wines too dry, or those who simply don't like the taste of alcohol.

Ume is a fruit similar to a plum. In fact, it's called "Japanese apricot" or "Chinese plum" (depending on where you find it) and it's popular in both countries, as well as in Korea. Ripe ume taste like a combination of a plum and an apricot, befitting its nicknames.

But umeshu -- the wine made from the fruit -- is created by steeping green, unripe ume in shōchū, a distilled liquor derived from barley (or rice, but not to be confused with sake).

The result is a wine that has the same alcohol content (10 to 15 percent ABV) as wine made from grapes, but with an incredibly smooth and sweet taste in between that of a sweet Riesling or Viognier and a mild Eiswein.

That said, it tastes nothing like wine at the same time. The sweetness of, say, an Eiswein is there thanks to the ume fruit, but it entirely masks the earthy, alcoholic taste of the shōchū and creates a beverage that is almost too easy to consume in large quantities.

The Choya ume blanc that I picked up from Spec's was a mild variety, having only 7 percent ABV, and costing about $9. Splitting the bottle with my boyfriend over a meal of slightly spicy crab and corn chowder (great pairing, by the way), he remarked that it would taste good with a little bit of Sprite in it. I blew him off, thinking that adding Sprite to wine would be the last thing that would taste good. But as we continued sipping on the viscous umeshu (think of the same glass-gripping viscosity of a thick Chardonnay or, again, an Eiswein), something carbonated to take that edge off sounded better and better.

As it turns out, Sprite and umeshu is a popular cocktail in Japan, where they mix two-thirds wine with one-third soda. Shows how much I know.

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