By The Glass
Appreciating the nuances of sake
Understanding the world of sake is no easy task. There is so much to learn that it takes years of experience and tasting to even begin to understand all the intricacies.
But understanding these main points should help you to make better buying decisions.
Brewed from rice
There are many types of rice, fermenting yeast, water sources, techniques and other variables to be considered, but none of those details is critical for the beginner to understand. More information would only create more confusion.
Junmai vs. honjozo
Junmai literally means "pure rice," and refers to a family of sake as well as a grade within that family. Junmai is made from water, rice, yeast and koji, or starter. No distilled alcohol.
Hence, when you see the terms junmai-shu, junmai ginjo or junmai daiginjo, you know you're looking at a pure rice sake.
Honjozo sake is made with the addition of a small amount of distilled alcohol, which brings out additional aromatics and flavors and rounds out a sake. Honjozo sakes can be labeled as honjozo-shu, ginjo and daiginjo.
Polishing the rice
In the first stage of sake-making, brewers mill the rice to its heart in a process called seimai. Milling removes the fats, proteins and amino acids from the rice grain, leaving the starches at the center.
The degree of seimaibuai, or rice-polishing, delineates the sake's quality level. This number is always expressed as the percentage of the original rice grain that is left. Thus, a seimaibuai of 70 percent means that 30 percent has been stripped away. Generally, the lower the number, the more elegant and refined the sake. Hence a daiginjo (50 percent) should be finer than a ginjo (60 percent) from the same house.
From dry to sweet
SMV, or nihonshudo, is the dryness rating of a sake, and is expressed as a positive or negative number from minus-6 to plus-7 or higher. Sake with a SMV of plus-2 and lower is generally on the sweet side, while those of plus-3 and above are drier. A better understanding of dryness and sweetness can certainly help when pairing sake with foods.
Just as you'd follow the skill and artistry of a specific winemaker or chef, you can follow the path of a sake maker. Certain sake houses stand out for their high quality and consistency year in and year out.
On the other hand, some brewers might have a deft touch producing junmai ginjo, while their other sakes are just so-so. Discovering the real masters is part of the fun of it all.
I hope you will find some of this helpful the next time you go shopping for a bottle of sake.
Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier, a partner in the Sansei restaurants and a consultant for Southern Wine & Spirits. This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org