We are familiar with different styles of wine and when it comes to sake, writes Christine Austin, there's plenty of variety too.

St Emilion, Chablis, Barossa and Rioja – these are all familiar wine place names and while we might not instantly remember exactly where they are and what the wines taste like, we can easily look them up, or see the names on supermarket labels.

Compare that with words like Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakuman Goku and Tokubetsu and the challenge that faces anyone wanting to learn about sake is clear.  Added to the fact that most sake labels carry very extravagant script with almost no English then it sometimes seems easier to pick up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

But wait – can you remember when Marlborough was a new name on a label, when the taste of Malbec seemed strange and the idea that mould grows on grapes to make sweet wines was definitely dodgy?

So Sake is a new direction in drinking and with Japanese food becoming so popular it makes sense to learn just a few names and tastes so that when you go to a Japanese restaurant or just try out your chopsticks at home, you have the right drink in your glass.

Last week we talked about how sake is made – essentially from rice, water, koji and yeast, but like wine there are many variations on a theme.

The rice is washed

Rice

Most sake rice is a special strain, and there are around 100 of them, but just as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most popular grapes, Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakuman Goku are the most popular rice strains – making up over half of all sake specific rice.

These grow pretty much all over Japan, apart from in the north and each produces its own particular style of sake.

Yamada Nishiki generally produces a light, aromatic style of sake with a generous texture.  Gohyakuman-Goku is delicate, simple and dry.

Pronunciation of these words is easy.  Take each syllable at a time and keep going.  There are no accents and no intonation, just long simple words.

Steaming rice

Koji

There is a massive amount of ritual associated with making koji, to get the right balance of mould to convert starch to sugar.  Water content, temperature, time and hygiene are vital parameters, but we don’t need to know anything about these factors.  Think of koji as activated rice, ready to do the processing, but when talking about sake, it is always impressive to drop the word ‘koji’ (pronounced co-gee) into the conversation.

Checking the koji

Ginjo and Daiginjo

Pronounce the ‘g’ in these words like ‘ginnel’ not ‘gin’.

Ginjo means premium sake, made with rice that has been polished to leave only 60% of the grain, or less.

Daiginjo is even more premium sake made with rice that has been polished to leave just 50% or less of the grain.

Because it takes around 10 hours to remove each 10% of a rice grain, the more it is polished the more expensive the resulting sake.  Why is rice polished?  To remove the proteins and lipids in the outer layers of rice that might add less favourable flavours to the sake.

Junmai

This means that no alcohol has been added to the sake after fermentation, which some people prefer.

Honjozo

This means that alcohol has been added to the sake, after fermentation, and before filtration. This acts like a flavour boost, extracting more from the rice. Generally, this style of sake is reduced in alcohol with water before bottling, but not always.

Genshu

If you don’t dilute the sake, then you use this term.  It means that you can get a higher-alcohol sake (often up to 19%) and it has a lot more flavour.

Tokubetsu

Just like in winemaking there are various techniques that can be used in the process of making sake. So long as the authorities recognise this variation, maybe polishing ratio or specific rice then the sake can be called Tokubetsu – which means special.  This will probably be quite expensive.

Nama

Often attached to the words sake or zake, this means that the sake has not been pasteurised which means that it must be kept cold to prevent spoilage and it should be drunk within a short period of time.  Think of Nama as the equivalent of en Rama sherry. Keep it cool and drink it fast.

Nigori

A creamy-looking sake that has had only a light filtration.

 

Toji

Every brewery needs to have someone in charge and instead of cellar master or winemaker, the term is Toji. Often male, with many years of experience, the Toji directs the whole process.  But there is a new wave of female Toji coming through, and I even encountered a French student who was learning how to make sake.

Serving sake

Ever visitor to Japan will probably come home with a set of eggcup sized ceramic cups that are often used for serving sake.  These are called choko and are often white with blue circles on the base inside. These are perfectly fine, but professional sake tasters often use wine tasting glasses for the simple reason that the sake can be seen, nosed and appreciated better from a glass.

 

What does sake taste like?

For a start it is less acidic than wine, softer, sometimes with a citrus note. There could be banana or apple in the profile too. The other key element in the taste is umami – that difficult to define savoury note that is reminiscent of mushrooms – in a good way.

Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes are generally fresh, with light fruity notes such as melon, apple and banana. The length of flavour which is so prized in wine is not regarded as essential in sake.  They like a clear, quick cut-off in flavour.

Junmai sakes are often richer in style, with more rice notes; Honjozo styles are generally fragrant with complex style, sometime with an earthy note.

Unlike wine there is no attempt to ‘guess’ the sake.  No one will hand you choko and ask you to name to rice or the region. So go and find a sake and try it.  Team it with fish and shellfish– raw and cooked, and vegetable tempura.  Get to know the flavours and the styles.

And remember to say ‘kampai’ instead of ‘cheers’.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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