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12 Things You Should Know about Sake

What is sake?
Sake isn’t wine. It’s not beer or a spirit either. Sake is alcohol made from fermented rice.

Alcohol levels in sake aren’t as high as you might think.
Sake is commonly served in small cups that may remind you of shot glasses, but it isn’t nearly so potent as a shot of whiskey. Sake is usually between 15% and 21% alcohol. That’s similar to robust table wine on the low end and fortified wine at the high end.

morimoto daiginjo
The presentation for Morimoto's delicious Daiginjo at Morimoto restaurant in Napa. Photo: Fred Swan

The biggest differences between wine and sake in your mouth are that sake has much lower acidity and no tannins.
These differences are significant when it comes to food pairing. Because there are no tannins, sake can work with most any seafood. Sake is good with heavier proteins too, but you’ll never need a ribeye to give it a smooth mouthfeel.

We’re accustomed to matching food and wine based on acidity levels. Since acidity in sake is relatively low, you’ll want to avoid pairing it with high acid foods like tomato sauces and dishes with a lot of citrus or with very creamy or chalky cheeses like Brie or soft goat cheese.

The three most important things to consider when pairing sake with food are palate weight, flavor profile and flavor intensity.
Because sake is higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than most wines, sake tends to have a smooth and relatively heavy mouthfeel. In my experience sake body ranges from medium+ to full. For a harmonious pairing, select sake that is similar in weight to your food. The higher the sake’s alcohol and sugar content, the more body it's likely to have.

Like wine, sake can be simple, with just one or two obvious aromas and flavors, or very complex with five to ten things going on. Even in a complex sake though, there’s often one category of flavors that dominates: tree fruit (apples, pears), light fruity aspects (lemon/lime pith, melon, cucumber), floral notes, umami (savory flavors like meat, mushroom and salt) or, in some aged or unpasteurized sake, oxidative flavors like toasted nuts and dry cheese.

Most sake flavors are derived from the rice, the strain of yeast and the mineral content of the water used. Some sake is strongly flavored with fruit extract though. Flavors include various berries, yuzu, plum and lychee. This type of sake tends to be sweet and is best enjoyed after-dinner.

Like wine, sake ranges from dry to sweet. Consider the level of sweetness when pairing sake with food.
There are three main ways to make sake that has residual sugar.

  • Stop fermentation before the yeasts have consumed all of the sugar.
  • Use yeast that dies naturally at an alcohol lower than can be produced by the amount of sugars available.
  • Add fruit extract for sweetness and flavoring.

Sake flavor profiles are unique and quite different from wine.
To me, the primary aromas and flavors of sake are gentler than those of a wine. Instead of lemon or lime zest, I smell citrus pith. Instead of biting into a crisp green apple, I smell a bowl of uncut green apples. I get peach blossom rather than peach. An exception is licorice which can be nearly as assertive in sake as in wine.

One aroma/flavor I frequently find in sake is petrichor. To me it’s almost an entire category of aromas like minerality is for wine. Petrichor is the scent of rain falling on dry earth. I love that smell and it differs depending on the season, what kind of surface the rain is falling on and what plants and flowers are nearby.

Today I tasted more than 50 different sakes. Within them I found a whole spectrum of petrichor. There was warm summer rain on a dirt path, light rain on a sidewalk and on a street. One smelled like mud from a heavy rain, another was rain in a flower garden. Very nice.

Sake is made from special rice.
The rice we eat is usually long and cylindrical. Sake rice is short and pudgy. More importantly, the bulk of its starch is concentrated in the center. Sugars derived from that starch fuel the fermentation process. Sake brewers can create different flavors and textures of sake by using most of each grain or by grinding them down until just that starchy core is left.

There are different grades of sake, based upon how much the rice was ground (aka polished).

  • Futsu-shu doesn’t require any milling at all. The whole grain—not including the husk—can be used.
  • Honjozo uses rice that has been polished until only 61-70% or less remains.
  • Ginjo means that just 51-60% of the grain was used.
  • Daiginjo is made with rice that was ground down until 50% or less of the original grain remained.

The more the rice is polished, the more expensive the sake. This is partly due to the extra processing but mostly because so much rice is discarded. It takes roughly twice as much rice to make daiginjo as futsu-shu.

dassei sake
Dassai Sake offers ultra-premium daiginjo made from rice polished to 39% and 23%. Photo: Fred Swan

Many sake are fortified with a very small amount of distilled alcohol.
Adding alcohol adds to the body of the sake. It can also help extract more and different flavors from the rice. It’s a totally legitimate and respected practice. Junmai designates a sake to which no distilled alcohol was added.

With very few exceptions, vintage is not a key factor in a sake’s flavor.
Weather can have an impact on rice growing, but it doesn’t have the big carryover effect on flavors that it does with wine. Occasionally, a producer will sell specially aged sake from a particular year. For the most part though, sake producers aim to have consistency from one batch to the next.

Sake is ready-to-drink when you buy it.
Even though vintage isn’t critical, sake bottles list the production date. That’s to help you know when you should drink it. Most sake should be consumed within one year of purchase.

If you open a bottle but don’t finish it, cap it and put it in the fridge. It will be good for up to three weeks.

Sake doesn’t have to come from Japan.
Sake is a very traditional Japanese beverage, but the word just means “alcohol.” It’s not a protected place name like Champagne or Port. There are some sake breweries in the United States. One, Takara Sake, is located in Berkeley. It has a tasting room plus a little museum. I highly recommend visiting them.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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