Wine Jones: A sip of sake
November 6, 2008
For centuries sake (pronounced sah-KEH ) has been as central to Japanese life as the rice from which it is made. Traditionally, sake has been associated with Japanese cuisine, but today this fermented grain beverage is gaining in popularity, and enjoyed with all types of foods, and as an aperitif. These wines can be served chilled, warmed or at room temperature depending on the style of sake.From rice grain to sakeSake is also referred to in English as rice wine. Unlike true wine, made from the single fermentation of grape juice, sake is produced by multiple fermentation of rice, which is similar to the way beer is produced. Because it’s fermented from a grain rather than fruit juice, sake isn’t technically a wine. The first step in sake production is making a starter mash. This mash, made up of koji-infused rice, yeast, water and usually lactic acid, ferments in a small tank for about 15 days. Koji is steamed rice with koji-kin, or koji mold spores, added that will break the starches into sugars that can be fermented by the yeast cells.The moto mash is then transferred to large fermentation tanks along with plain cooked rice and water. The koji breaks down the new rice starch while the yeast transforms the resulting sugar into alcohol. This method will produce 20-percent mash alcohol content, the highest in any non-distilled beverage. Next the sake is strained of its rice lees, filtered for clarity, blended with a bit of water to balance its flavor, and then pasteurized and bottled. Sakes are categorized according to how much the rice has been polished. As a general rule, the more highly polished the rice, the more delicate and aromatic the resulting sake will be; fats and amino acids in the grain’s outer layer contribute heavier flavors, while the heart of the grain, nearly pure starch, converts to fermentable sugar.The classification of junmai ginjo indicates a premium sake with no added alcohol. Some bottles will also display levels of sweetness and acidity. Labels indicate the polish rate or percentage of rice removed during polishing with the term semaibuai, which is actually the amount of rice remaining after the polish. A semaibuai of 50 percent indicates a daiginjo, the most aromatic and delicate sake category. A semaibuai of 60 percent designates a ginjo slightly less delicate and aromatic. Sakes having a 70 percent semaibuai are the more robust and traditional junmais and the smoother honjozos, which have small amount of brewer’s alcohol added during the final fermenting stages. Strict Sake Brewer’s Association guidelines dictate honjozos must contain less than 10 percent added alcohol.Premium sake made without added alcohol bears the prefix junmai meaning pure rice. Tokubetsu junmai, meaning special junmai, indicates the use of exceptional handling techniques, unique rice strains, or rice more highly polished than the minimum requirements. Additional sake styles include:Genshus: full-strength sakes, with higher alcohol levels, which allows one to enjoy this style poured over ice. Namazakes: These sakes are left un-pasteurized. They must be stored refrigerated, and even then they change fairly quickly as their fermentation continues; sweetness comes from lees left in the brew or those added back after filtration. Sweetness, dryness and aciditySome bottles show the sweetness or dryness of a sake numerically on the back of the label. Zero is theoretically neutral. Numbers higher than four indicate varying degrees of dryness, while minus numbers tend toward sweet. There are highly regarded sweet sakes called ginkobai and junmai, which are infused with plums, and also kijoshu, which is almost like a port or Sauternes, which is produced by substituting sake for half the water in the fermenting mash.For best quality, sake should be kept in a cool dark spot, as prolonged exposure to heat or direct light will lead to spoilage. Sake stored at room temperature is best consumed within a few months after purchase. Most sakes are best consumed when young, under a year old. The age of a bottle of sake may be difficult to discern. The shipping date is listed on the bottle using the Emperors Calendar! After opening the bottle of sake, it is best consumed within two or three hours. Once premium sake is opened it begins to oxidize. If the sake is kept in the refrigerator for more than three days, it will lose its best flavor. However, this does not mean it should be disposed of if not consumed. Generally, sake can keep very well and still taste just fine after weeks in the fridge. Although traditionally it is served in a small ceramic cups, it is now also being offered in traditional style wine glasses in restaurants, to fully enjoy the aromas.Beyond Asian pairingsDaiginjos: Generally delicate and aromatic, with hints of ripe fruit flavors, daiginjos make fantastic aperitifs and pair well with mild fish or subtly seasoned appetizers. Ginjos: Slightly more fruity and assertive than daiginjos, these light, smooth sakes match well with sushi, seafood, and light, non-tomato based sauces, pasta dishes Junmais: These sakes present an earthy nose, with bold flavors and more complexity. They can be paired with bigger flavors of grilled chicken, pork, or tempura. Tokubetsu Junmais: With their special designation, these sakes give brewers leeway to create distinctive flavors. Most are bold and meaty and will stand up to steaks, oilier foods, and rich sauces. Honjozos: These are often excellent with a wide range of flavors due to a cleaner, drier taste, moderate acidity, and crisp finish. Janice Jones is a wine consultant and a Truckee resident. You may reach her at email@example.com.Sake Tours andamp; Tastings:Gekkeikan’s state-of-the-art sake brewing facility in Folsom, Calif. is the latest chapter in a continuing story that began more than 360 years ago 5,000 miles away in Fushimi, Japan. Gekkeikan brings a 2,000-year-old brewing process to the Folsom sake brewery, the company’s first brewing facility in North America. Just as Fushimi was discovered centuries ago, Folsom was found to offer just the right conditions: high quality water and an abundance of rice the perfect setting for a skilled brewmaster backed by more than three and a half centuries of experience. For information about tours and tastings, visit http://www.gekkeikan-sake.com or call (916) 985-3111.