I’ve never felt the effects of sake because, quite honestly, I have never finished the small porcelain cup it was offered in and I’ve never requested another.
I only tried it as a house pour usually served warm in Japanese restaurants and, in retrospect, I now realize it was a poorly made sake. I recently had the great honor and pleasure of participating in a premium sake master class and tasting, hosted by Toshio Ueno, a master sake sommelier and vice president of the Sake School of America. Although the production of sake goes back thousands of years, premium sake is a relatively new concept, taking hold in just the last 50 years or so. I had always thought of sake as a rice wine, but Ueno was adamant that it isn’t a wine. Indeed, even the sake production houses are known as breweries.
Sake is relatively easy to make. Certain rice is grown specifically for sake production and not for food. This sake rice has higher starch concentration, less protein and fewer lipids (fats and fat-like material), making it far less nutritious and less tasty for human consumption. The rice is then milled or polished until the tougher and bitter outer parts are ground away, leaving the shinpaku, or the “white heart.” Many bottles of premium sake will tell you the percentage to which each grain of rice is polished. The higher the seimaibuai, or polishing number ratio, the smaller the resultant white heart and the purer the sake. Look for numbers approaching or exceeding 50 percent. The temperatures of the mash will be tweaked both up and down throughout the fermentation process to keep the fungi, the yeasts and the transformation in sync.
Wine is made by encouraging the sugars in the fruit with the presence of yeast to become ethanol, or consumable alcohol. Simply add yeast to soaked sake rice and nothing will happen. This rice is loaded with starch that has almost no sugar. Koji, a fungus unique to Japan, has to be added to the rice mash first to convert the starch to sugar. Those sugars, now introduced to yeast, are then converted to alcohol.
The flavor profile of premium sakes can be all over the sweetness/dryness continuum. Many premium sakes today have a sweetness scale on the back of the bottle, making choosing a style much easier. Usually, the bottles representing a wine production area are similar by local law or by habit. Bordeaux uses a shouldered bottle for trapping sediment. Burgundy employs a graceful and sloping neck. Alsatian wines are delivered in tall and narrow flute bottles. But sake bottles come in various shapes and many colors — brown, green, light blue, dark blue and pink. Some come in clear and translucent colors. Some bottles are frosted. Some are tall; some squat. Some come in baskets similar to certain Chiantis.
So how do you choose? Premium sakes are quite affordable, most retailing in the $15 to $35 range. Look for highly milled sakes and find your sweetness/dryness comfort zone. Then find your alcohol zone, because sakes can have the highest alcohol content of any solely fermented product. Wine alcohol percentage is usually between 10 and 15.5 percent. Sakes can be anywhere between 5 and 20 percent. Many of the higher alcohol sakes are diluted toward the end of the process but some come in full strength.
Our first taste of sake was educational for me, very unlike any white wines I’ve had recently. Sauvignon blanc, Vermentino, Albariño and even Grüner Veltliner are big citrus fruit bombs by comparison. The lemony notes of these wines will reach out and grab you. No mistaking it. But sakes are subtle and soft with fresh and clean apple, pear, melon or citrus flavors, sometimes with a hint of finely ground white pepper or other soft spice for structure. And they are very food friendly, taking you way beyond Japanese cuisine.
Sakes will pair with any type of seafood, lightly dressed pasta dishes, raw bar selections or vegetable platters. Ceviche would be a perfect pairing. None of the sakes we tasted come with any vintage date on the label. Sake is meant for drinking fresh and young, with only a few producers experimenting with aging them in the bottle. So make sure you purchase from a purveyor with some stock. A small retailer might have the bottle on the shelf for years. Pick up some sake and retrain and retune your palate. There is a place in everyone’s wine cellar and at many wine dinners for a variety of sakes. Just don’t call them wine.
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