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Sake it to me

Sake, although an ancient wine dating back to third century Japan, is not a very widely received beverage in America. This lack of popularity may be a result of sipping piping hot, sticky, bitter, hang-over causing liquid called sake in restaurants. That wine, which more than likely had additional alcohol added to it for volume, is not what sake is really like. Premium sake is similar to wine, with many levels of flavors and styles to choose from. Sake can range from bone dry, light and crisp to slightly sweet and heavy. It is generally lighter than white wine with delicate grainy flavors and light fragrant aromas.

Sake is produced from rice, water, and yeast (Koji), using multiple fermentation steps, similar to beer production. What determines the quality of the sake is the water used and the amount of polishing that the brewer will apply to the specific sake rice known as sakamai. The more impurities removed by polishing will produce a lighter and more delicate flavored sake.The highly prized starch that is left in the center of the rice grain contributes to a more refined taste of the sake. Sakamai is different from regular rice. Its grains are much larger, and the growing process is more difficult, requiring more water, nutrients and milder climates than the food grade rice grown in Japan. The Koji is a mold derived from steamed rice, which contributes to proper fermentation by changing the starch into fermentable sugars. Sake consists of 80 percent pure water, that is of a suitable chemical make-up, and only found in four sake producing areas of Japan. After fermentation, the sake is generally filtered to remove grain solids, except in the case of nigori sake. Most sakes should be consumed when fresh as it degrades rapidly when exposed to light, air and heat. A few styles are produced to age; koshu and taruzake, which is aged in cedar are two types of age-able sakes.

The percentage of original rice remaining after polishing determines the sakes classification, which is called the Seimaibuai classification in Japan. Sake can also be divided into two groups, those with added alcohol and those made with rice only.Junmai Dai Ginjyo is the highest grade Sake with a Seimaibuai 50 percent, which means 50 percent of the rice grains are polished off. Junmai Ginjyo is the next grade at 60 percent and Junmai with a rating of 70 percent. These styles of sake do not have added alcohol; they contain only water, rice and Koji, and are considered pure Sake. Honjyozo is made with a slight amount of brewers alcohol added and with at least 70 percent of the original rice. Ginjo and Dai-Ginjo sakes also have small amounts of alcohol added for a flavor that the brewer wants to attain. Futsushu Sake, which accounts for over 75 percent of the sake that is produced, is on the same level of table wine; it does not qualify for any classification.Sake, much like wine , can be appreciated for its flavors, aromas and mouth-feel. Sake is a complex wine that presents different flavors at different temperatures. It is either dry or sweet, with acidity levels that contribute to dryness if high, or more body if it is lower in acidity. The acid level is usually indicated on the label using a Sake Meter Value (SMV) rating. Those that are rated around +7 will be dry, and those in the area of -6 are regarded as sweet. A classification of six flavor styles may also be indicated on the label; amami means sweetness, karami meabs dryness, sanmi means acid flavor, nigami means bitterness, shibumi means astringency and umami indicates richness



Sake is served both warm and cold in Japan, depending on the season and the flavor intent of the brewer. Typically hot sake is served in winter and cold in the summer. Heating sake will mask any unwanted flavors; many lower-end sakes are served heated just for this reason. There are some quality sakes produced to be consumed warmed though, and the preferable temperature is 68 degrees, although most sakes are served here in the U.S. at around 98.6 degrees. Chilled sake should be served at around 50 degrees.Pairing food and sake can go well beyond the traditional pairings with sushi. Try slightly sweet sake with a baked chicken breast with a tarragon cream sauce. A sake that has flavor on the nigami side will go well with an arugala salad, and a sake that is sanmi in flavor will go well with poached salmon. A sake that is soft, with neither too dry or too sweet characteristics that is slightly rich and served chilled, is an excellent choice as an aperitif or for a refreshing sipper on a hot afternoon.Janice Jones is a Truckee resident and wine aficionado.


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