The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

For the Sake of Saké

Posted on | August 19, 2011 | Written by Crystal Edgar | No Comments

Working in the beverage industry, I appreciate alcoholic beverages of all sorts — natural, fermented, brewed, distilled and infused. Although wine is my primary focus, I am very keen on other delicious beverages, Saké being one of them. As is the case with Marsala, Vermouth, Sherry and Madeira, I feel that Saké is widely misunderstood. It is not just a hot alcoholic beverage served at Japanese restaurants with California rolls and tempura; it is a unique beverage that can rival some of the world’s greatest wines (and spirits in certain instances).

Saké is a 7,000 year old beverage that is made from four key ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji (an enzyme that converts starch into sugar, and imparts a distinct and unique flavor). Saké is essentially brewed like beer but the end product is served like wine, with tasting characteristics and alcohol content very similar to wine. I notice more and more drinkers are viewing Saké as another white wine, different from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, or Riesling, but also having notable similarities and complementing a variety of foods and flavors.

There are over 12,000 different Sakés produced by 2,000 different Sakéries worldwide. While it was actually first created in China, it was later dramatically improved in Japan. Interestingly, Saké is now made in many countries around the world – the US (California & Oregon), Brazil, Australia, Vietnam, China, Korea and of course Japan. To fully understand Saké, you must be familiar with the main ingredients and production methods. Just as the best wine is made from excellent grapes, the finest Saké also starts with the finest premium ingredients – the purest water, high quality Saké rice, special yeast, and koji.

There are thousands of kinds of rice, but only about two hundred are suitable for premium Saké. Table rice does not make great Saké, just as table grapes make one-dimensional wines. Saké rice (Yamada Nashiki being the most popular) is brown short grain, almost round in appearance. The starches in rice, which provide the best flavors, are concentrated in the center of the rice grain, in what often looks like a white pearl. For premium Sakés, the outside of the grain, containing undesirable fat and proteins, which can deliver unpleasant flavors and aromas, is polished or milled away. This exposes the heart of the rice that contains the starch that will be converted to fermentable sugars, thus creating a creamier, sweeter wine.

Below is a simple list of vocabulary that decipher the grades and naming of Saké:

  • Futsu-shu — is basically “normal Saké,” or Saké that does not qualify for one of the levels of classifications, similar to the “table wine” category.
  • Junmai-shu – this term means that no distilled alcohol has been added. Only four ingredients are used; rice, water, koji and yeast. Until recently, at least 30% of the rice used for Junmai sake had to be milled away. However, Junmai no longer requires a specified milling rate. Nevertheless, the amount milled away must, by law, be listed somewhere on the label.
  • Honjozo-shu –consider this a “fortified” Saké in wine-speak, the rice has been milled leaving 60-70% of the grain.
  • Ginjo-shu – for this category of Saké at least 40% of rice polished away; with or without alcohol added; if bottle is labeled Ginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled ‘Junmai’ Ginjo, it means no additional alcohol has been added.
  • Daiginjo-shu The pinnacle of the brewers craft (and usually the most expensive), at least 50% of rice polished away; again with or without added alcohol; if bottle is labeled Daiginjo, it means distilled alcohol was added; if labeled ‘Junmai’ Daiginjo, it means no additional alcohol has  been added.

In pairing challenging food flavors with wine, Saké is always a safe bet as it is extremely adaptable to a variety of flavors and textures. So for those humble evenings where dinner consists of a hot dog or hamburger loaded with onions, pickles, relish, mustard and ketchup, leave the beer in the fridge and grab a glass of Saké!

Here are some of my favorite producers:  Kozaemon (Gifu prefecture), Hatsukame (Shizuoka prefecture), Kasumi Tsuru (Hyogo prefecture), Aiyu (Ibaraki prefecture), Tateyama (Toyama prefecture)



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