Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Wondering About Rice Wine? Sake Simplified

Brewed like a beer but drunk like a wine...so what category does sake fall into? It falls into the awesomely cool and trendy category, that's what!

Having tried a shameful number of sake at the London International Wine Fair earlier this year, my interest in this traditional Japanese tipple led me to yet more sampling at the recent Wine Gang tasting at Vinopolis, London. The helpful folk from Tengu Sake (top UK sake distributors) talked me through the production, classification and different styles of sake - a complete revelation!

Also known as 'rice wine' here in the UK, the work sake (also pronounced shu) actually translates as 'liquor' in Japanese, so in English is often termed as Nihonshu, which means 'Japanese liquor' and often labelled as seishu under Japanese laws. Good luck reading the label though - unless you're fluent in Japanese, you might struggle to tell the difference! Our friends at Tengu Sake have been kind enough to give the sake which they import from Japan to distribute in the UK easy to pronounce English names like Rare Brew, Dancing Geisha and Silent Forest.

Brewed from rice, sake resembles white wine in appearance, from transparent/water-white to dark amber and is generally 15-17% alcohol. With just four ingredients; rice, koji, yeast and water, it's made differently to both wine, and beer. When sake is brewed, the conversions from starch to sugar and sugar to alcohol occur at the same time, unlike beer where these steps take place separately and wine, where alcohol is produced by fermenting natural sugars in fruit.

Sake can be divided into two kinds:
1. futsu-shu - ordinary sake, generally cheaper, the equivalent of table wine
2. tokutei meisho-shu - special designation sake, premium quality

There are eight varieties of tokutei meisho-shu which are then classified in one of two ways; 1. How polished, or milled, the rice is, and 2. Whether any distilled 'brewer's alcohol' has been added. Highly milled sake has lighter, more refined and fruiter flavours and is the holy grail of the sake brewer's craft. Junmai sake is pure rice and has no alcohol added, and non junmai sake has had alcohol added to it. Given these classifications I'm drawing conclusion that the holy grail is a sake from highly polished rice with no alcohol added - see my hand-drawn technical graph illustration below with guidance from info from Tengu Sake!!

 Free from sulphites and other preservatives, most sake is pasteurised, which means it is heated to a specific temperature for a given amount of time, then cooled immediately, meaning that in wine terms, it's produced organically. A word of advice? Look for a bottling date on the label - sake is designed to be drunk within 1-2 years - the way it's produced, it won't be much good after this time. Once open, it's best consumed within 2-3 hours (oh, if we must!), which isn't hard with a few friends.

Traditionally sake would be drunk warm, however with the increase of its popularity, many premium sake are now served chilled, though just as with wine, different serving temperatures will ellicit different flavour profiles so be sure to get a recommendation. Sake specialists will also tell you how well sake complements many foods too, from parma ham with melon (light, pure styles), whole baked fish with citrus and fatty, oily fish which work well with a light acidic style, as would a white wine. Think Japanese cuisine - sushi, tempura, sashimi - regional pairings always work well.

Like the wine we know and love, sake has a complex array of aroma and flavour profiles and characters, from fruits such as pear, banana, melon and lychees to spices and even acidic aromas of yoghurt and cheese. Of course, there is an underlying character of rice in most sake which gives a clean and refreshing palate. Yes, it all sounds a bit daunting, but like there is much to learn about wine, there is much to learn about sake - there are over 20,000 varities available in Japan so we are lucky in the UK our choice is a little more limited!

I've found a bit of a bargain from our friends at Tesco. Their Doragon Sake won a silver quality award at the 2011 International Wine and Spirits Competition, and is available online (and in some stores) for just £5.00 for a 50cl bottle! If you're feeling a little more adventurous, why not head to online store Tengu Sake - their range is incredible and reasonably priced considering they pick only the best for us Brits to sample. Their site is easy to use, incredibly informative and indicates the characteristics of each sake with flavour profile logos.

So sip a cup of silky sake soon and let us know how you get on.

Kanbai! (sounds like, 'gahn-pie', the easiest way to say 'cheers' in Japanese and translates to 'empty cup' or 'bottoms up')

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the write up, Jo; a great article and a great way to get people interested in sake! Glad you enjoyed the tasting at the Wine Gang event.