Food & Drink

How to Taste Caviar—and Pair It Perfectly With Sake

A guide to throwing the most delightfully pretentious party we could think of, courtesy of the experts at Mandarin Oriental and Caviar Sturia.

Caviar Tasting: Caviar Sturia

By Jeninne Lee-St. John

Nov 14, 2022

CONSUMING CAVIAR MAY BE the universally accepted stand-in for leading the luxe life, but how much do you know about where those expensive salty little eggs come from? Quality, and yes, real, caviar comes from a lot more diverse places than you might think, and a tasting can help you tell the differences among them and why you might like some and not others.

In the middle of Bordeaux Grand Cru country is the home of Caviar Sturia. Along the Gironde Estuary, in addition to a vineyard, Laurent Dulau runs his artisanal, low-impact caviar farm, producing just 18 tons per year, using mostly sturgeon of the baerii (Sturia’s have a long snout, and more uniform gray coloring, and were native to European waters) and oscietra (short snout, white-and-black coloring like a whaleshark, originally from the Caspian Sea) breeds. 

Sturia Caviar Tasting and sake pairing at kinu by takagi japanese restaurant at mandarin oriental bangkok
Bar Seating at Kinu by Takagi . Courtesy of Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

If you needed proof of how far caviar has come from being an exclusively Russian and Iranian delicacy, we reported on this story from a tasting in Thailand—at Kinu by Takagi in Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, which has a caviar-drenched seasonal menu on now—with the aforementioned fish farmer from France, and, flown in from Japan, two-Michelin-starred chef Takagi Kazuo who uses Sturia in many of his dishes, and a sommelier, Yuto Kaneyasu of Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.

Sure, bubbles seems like the no-brainer for a caviar tasting, but this somm and his brilliant sake pairing are here to change your mind. “French people say Champagne is very good with caviar,” Yuto says during his guest-shift at Kinu by Takagi, “but I think sake is a better pairing.” Game on.

How to Have a Caviar Tasting

Sturia Caviar Tasting and sake pairing at kinu by takagi japanese restaurant at mandarin oriental bangkok
Caviar Sturia

Backstory:
All caviar you’d consume today is farmed. The demise of the Soviet Union led to overfishing of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, and their population became so depleted by 2011 that catching them in the wild there was banned. 

Luckily, these days you can get caviar from sturgeon farms all over the world, including of course Bordeaux, as well as northern China, Israel, Riofrio in Grenada, the Missouri River region, and even the a high-tech warehouse in Hua Hin, Thailand.

Age matters:
“Caviar is like wine and cheese,” says Laurent Dulau. “You feel the effect of the maturation of the caviar over time.”
Sturia produces caviar of three maturation levels: approximately three months, six months and nine months. The flavor becomes richer at each stage.

Sturia Caviar Tasting and sake pairing at kinu by takagi japanese restaurant at mandarin oriental bangkok
FROM LEFT: Courtesy of Mandarin Oriental Bangkok; photo by Jeninne Lee-St. John

Use all your senses:
Like wine, caviar should be “tasted” in stages and holistically.

  1. Sight: First take a close look. What size is the roe? Baerii eggs are smaller, for example, than oscietra— 2.6 mm vs 2.8 mm. What color is it? How rich is the color? For caviar from the same breed of sturgeon, generally a darker color signals that it’s more mature, because of oxidation.
  2. Scent: Use a mother of pearl spoon so as not to pollute the scent or taste, and lift it to your nose. This is a bit of a red herring because we’re actually looking for no scent whatsoever. “If there’s any odor,” Dulau says, “it’s not good—or it’s old.”
  3. Texture: Now, have a small spoonful and feel the eggs on your tongue. Are they light, dense, smooth, creamy?
  4. Taste: How much umami do you feel? Does the flavor of the caviar linger in the mouth or dissipate quickly? As with a wine, you should be able to discern in the caviar other tasting notes from nature, such as nuttiness, meatiness, fruits and veg. This helps with making a champagne, wine or—our purpose here!—sake pairing.

Tasting Notes for Caviar Sturia, with a Sake Pairing from an Expert Sommelier

Sturia Caviar Tasting and sake pairing at kinu by takagi japanese restaurant at mandarin oriental bangkok
Photo by Jeninne Lee-St. John

Grand primeur baerii Three months maturation (young)
Tasting notes: Light, delicate, subtle, not very long in the mouth, creamy aroma (almost like sour cream), green beans
* Sake pairing: Noguchi Naohiko, Junmai Daiginjo, from Ishikawa Prefecture. 18% ABV
Pairing notes: The sake reinforces the green almond notes of the caviar, which wouldn’t be so obvious before the drink.

Vintage baerii Six months maturation
Tasting notes: Fishier, more umami.
* Sake pairing: Nabeshima, Junmai Daiginjo, from Saga Prefecture. 16% ABV
Pairing notes: Black olive tapenade. Long in the mouth, creates a lot of saliva. Tastes almost like a dirty martini.

Caviar Tasting: Sake
Photo by ckstockphoto/Canva

Origin baerii More than 9 months maturation 
Tasting notes: Smoked, meaty flavor, relatively woody, spicy
* Sake pairing: Sakunohana, Karakuchi Ginjo, from Nagano Prefecture. 15% ABV
Pairing notes: Russian caviar back in the day used to be very strong like this ‘Origin’ caviar, Dulau explains, so they drank vodka with it to combat the flavor—or balance it, depending on your perspective. This sake equally holds its own, with crisp dryness and a smooth finish.

Oscietra 6 months maturation different species, short nose, from the Caspian Sea — 
Tasting notes: Remember, this is a different species. The eggs are firmer. At first glance, the caviar looks tiny and discreet, but upon tasting you realize it’s actually long and very complex. Notes of cashew nuts, more like buttery than creamy, avocado
* Sake pairing: Kariho, Junmai sparkling, from Akita Prefecture, 15% ABV
Pairing notes: Sparkling sake! Here are your bubbles, people. “The sensation you have in the mouth with the caviar pairing, is fresh,” Dulau says, “practically like lime.”

Sponsored by Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto

Taste Sturia caviar at Kinu by Takagi at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok on the Kyo-ryori autumn tasting menu by chef de cuisine chef Norihisa Maeda, through December 30, 2022; five-course lunch Bt4,000 per person; 10-course dinner Bt8,000 per person; restaurants-mobkk@mohg.com

All photos courtesy of Mandarin Oriental.

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