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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 Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Charles Banks Acquires Historic Qupé Winery In the Santa Maria Valley Appellation

Banks becomes majority stake holder, with legendary winemaker, Bob Lindquist, remaining on board as partner  

Santa Barbara County, CA- Charles Banks and Terroir Selections have acquired a majority stake in Santa Maria Valley’s iconic Qupé winery, long considered one of America’s finest Syrah producers. Founder and winemaker, Bob Lindquist, will assume the role of partner, while Louisa Sawyer Lindquist will continue to assist with sales. Moving forward, both parties are committed to improving quality at Qupé.

“I am thrilled to work alongside a gifted winemaker and legend like Bob Lindquist,” says Banks. He continues, “Bob has been a steadfast visionary of Syrah for decades. Few have done as much as Bob to advance awareness for Syrah in the United States. I love Syrah and have wanted to work on a meaningful Syrah project for a number of years now. With an infusion of capital from Terroir Selections, Bob and I are both confident that we can strengthen Qupé’s future allowing it to remain the benchmark in American Rhone-inspired wines.”  

CharlesBanks BobLindquist ByJeremyBall
Bob Lindquist and Charles Banks. Photo: Jeremy Ball

Lindquist has long been considered one of Santa Barbara wine country’s visionaries. While a tour guide in the late ‘70’s at Zaca Mesa, Lindquist learned to make wine from his co-workers and friends; Jim Clendenen, who at the time was assistant winemaker, Ken Brown, who was winemaker, and Adam Tolmach, who was the enologist. All three, who became successful winery owners themselves, worked at Zaca Mesa during Santa Barbara wine country’s nascent era.  

Founded in 1982, Qupé will continue to share a winery with Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat on the esteemed Bien Nacido vineyard; an agreement that was made between Lindquist and Clenenden in1989, when they brought their winery projects together under one roof.  Lindquist and Clendenen continue to mentor a new generation of winemakers, including Paul Lato, Gavin Chanin, Gary Burk, Josh Klapper and Rajat Parr, among many others.  

Banks adds, “My wife, Ali, and I have been in Santa Barbara County for 13 years, and we’ve set down some roots here, first with Jonata, and later with Sandhi and Mattei’s Tavern (a four-way partnership between Ali and Charles Banks, and Emily Perry Wilson and Chef Robbie Wilson) and now with Qupé.   Qupé Winery will join Banks’ Terroir Selections portfolio, which includes Sandhi (Sta. Rita Hills, with celebrated sommelier-turned-winemaker, Rajat Parr), Mayacamas and Leviathan (Napa Valley), Wind Gap (vineyard designates throughout California), Mulderbosch, Fable and Marvelous Range (South Africa); Maison L’ Oree (France), and Cultivate, a philanthropically-minded brand sourcing fruit from around the world.

The text above is unedited from the press release by Sao Anash of Muse Management (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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.

Study: Researchers Discover New Taste

290px-Eating a Georgia peachResearchers in Australia claim to have discovered a new taste category. The human tongue's sensitivity to sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami flavors has been well-known for decades. Umami was the last of the five to be accepted scientifically as a basic taste. It is the sensation of savory flavors based on glutamates and nucleotides found in foods such as meat, mushrooms and soy. Its official recognition in 1985 unleashed a flood of conversations in the world of food and drink.

Now a new study has tongues wagging again. The research, conducted by staff and graduate students at Yarra University, Melbourne have identified something they call omimi. Omimi doesn't involve newly discovered taste receptors nor chemical triggers. Stimulating the known taste receptors in certain complex combinations and at varying levels of intensity opens up sensitivity to this new taste sensation.

“It’s like a combination lock on a door to another dimension of flavor,” said Dr. Sue-Ann Sauer, one of the study's co-authors, during a teleconference announcing the study’s release. “We can reproduce it, but don’t yet have a full understanding of the mechanism behind the reaction.

The study is not conclusive and it's authors warn both further investigation and peer review are required. "We are already beginning a new phase of trials,"said Ian Debacon, head of research in the Department of Food Science at Yarra University. "Fortunately, the new flavor profile is quite pleasant and we have no shortage of volunteers for current and future testing."

Debacon's optimism is understandable given published comments from some of the first study's volunteers. "I've signed up for other research in the past, because I need the money," said undergraduate Sheila Havanatha. "Most were boring or even painful. This was amazing. I put the flavor sample in my mouth and I couldn’t describe the flavors. All I could say was, ‘Oh, my, my! I want some more.’"

Inspired by Havanatha's exclamation, the research team dubbed the sensation omimi. The study has stimulated more than test subjects. Funding for additional research has poured in from domestic food and beverage companies and some as far away as France. They all want to learn how to stimulate the new taste sensation identified at the Australian university whose acronym, YUM, has never been more appropriate.

Enjoy your April 1st.

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 Copyright 2014 NorCal Wine. Photograph of Grayson by Bruce Tuten. All rights reserved.

How to Start a Wine Collection: Part 1 - What Kind of Collector are You?

Most wine enthusiasts never start a “cellar” or collection. They prefer to buy a wine as they need it. Some people join a wine club or two and just drink the club shipments. There’s not much upfront spending this way and no need to worry about special wine storage.

Many wine lovers do want to take the next step though. They want to stock a wine cellar. This article is the first in a series intended to help people who are just beginning to collect wine.

It’s easy to begin a wine collection. All you have to do is buy. However, without the right planning in the beginning, you may regret some of your purchases later.

Before buying a bunch of wine to cellar, you need to think about what your goals are. There are several different reasons to start a cellar. Each dictates a different buying strategy. You might have multiple goals. They can all be accommodated. But you really should take time to understand what you want to get out of having a cellar.

Here are the most common reasons for stocking a wine cellar:

  • Aging wine
  • Investing in wine
  • Always have a range of wine at your fingertips
  • Hold wines for gifts and special occasions
  • Create a showpiece
  • Enjoy buying and collecting

Each of these is a perfectly good reason to buy wine you won’t drink in the very near term. But you can also easily imagine how each of these goals calls for a different buying strategy. Before we get into the strategies, let’s look at each goal in more detail.

Aging Wine

Aging wines in your own cellar can be very rewarding. It is the most affordable way to have access to aged wine. It ensures that you have exactly the type of wines you want. It allows you to taste the wines periodically to see how they are developing. And it’s fun tasting and reading about wines as you decide what you should and should not put in the cellar.

There are also hazards to aging your own wine though. Your tastes could change over time, leaving you with a cellar full of wine you no longer like. You might accidentally buy wine that doesn’t age well, either because of the style or the vintage. In their enthusiasm, some people also buy more wine than they can possibly drink at the proper age. Losing track of what you have and letting a bottles go too long is easy to do too. Avoiding these pitfalls will be an important part of your buying strategy.

Have a Variety of Wine Readily Available

If this is your goal, you may wish to age wine. However, you will also want plenty of wine that’s ready to drink over the next year or two. The cellar should include a broader assortment of wine than that of someone focused solely on aging.

This type of collection brings a different set of challenges. Since many of the wines will not be age-worthy, it is very important to keep track of those and consume them while at their youthful best. You also need a good, and conservative, estimate of how much wine you will drink over the course of a year. It’s better to need to buy a bottle or two on the spur of the moment than to have cellared wines go past their peak. It’s also good to under-buy so you can take advantage of special deals you might run across or great new wines you find.

Investing in Wine

Certain wines have proved to be a good financial investment over time. Many individual bottlings have gone up 10x or more over the course of a decade or two. That kind of return rivals what you might get in the stock market, especially these days. And, like picking stocks, hunting for the right investments, buying them and selling at a profit can be exhilarating.

Like any other investment though, it’s essential to buy the right thing at the right time at the right price. Most wines go down, not up, in value over time. And the market for collectible wines has peaks and valleys, just like those for stocks, art, rare cars, etc. Unlike most other investments, you can consume wine if you can’t sell it. But, also unlike other assets, every wine will go bad over time. Once a wine’s peak is past, all but the rarest drops sharply in value.

Hold Wines for Gifts and Special Occasions

Vintage wines are popular gifts for weddings, new babies, anniversaries and birthdays. Opening a bottle of wine from a significant year in your own life makes your celebration even more special. Some of the best dinners I’ve ever had have been ones at which a friend or I celebrated a birthday with a number of birth-year wines. Having those wines in the cellar also gives people something to look forward to, whether it’s a 21st birthday or a 30th wedding anniversary.

Buying wines for birthdays and other special occasions is a bit different than buying wines for aging. Some of the wines may be for people with different taste than your own. They may not even have developed an appreciation for aged wine. Since the occasion drives the opening date, you need to choose wines that will be drinking well at that specific time. Knowing what regions and styles excelled in the desired vintage is essential. Winery prestige is a consideration. And, since you may only give one bottle, you also want to choose and store the wine so that the chance of a bad bottle is minimized. A badly tainted wine is a huge disappointment.

Create a showpiece

Some folks like to build wine cellars to emphasize their financial success, social standing or good taste. A beautifully designed cellar full of rare or famously good wine definitely makes an impact on visitors. And the wines may make knowledgeable wine lovers salivate.

Because much of the impression status cellars make is visual, this type of collector buys with that in mind. The bottles need to look good and have clean, attractive labels. Large format bottles (magnum, double magnum or larger) grab attention. Etched bottles grab the spotlight. Speaking of the spotlight, many show cellars are both warmer and more brightly lighted than aging cellars. That needs to be taken into consideration when managing the cellar if the wine will also be consumed. On the other hand, to some people it may be more important to have famous wines, even from off years, than lesser-known wines that are spectacular to drink.

Enjoy Buying and Collecting

Some people just like to collect stuff. I do. Like baseball cards, books, stamps, antiques, vintage furniture, wine is an interesting collectible. Every wine and winery has a story. Every vintage is different. Wine labels alone can make an interesting collection. And then there are individual bottles of historic significance due to their age or who owned them in the past.

Pure collectors may have no intention of ever opening the bottles. For them, the quality or long-term drinkability of the wine may be unimportant. Resale value may be more crucial. But the biggest driver of purchases will be how the wine fits into the story being told through the bottles.

The next article in this series will detail strategies for aging wine. In the meantime, you may be interested in this article about storing wine.

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 Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Why are Aromas So Hard to Describe

Smelling wine is one of the most important parts of enjoying it. The aromas of wine and the places they take our thoughts can be very pleasurable. They evoke memories and even generate emotions. Sadly, describing aromatics effectively to another person is very difficult.

562px-Smelling_the_wineIt turns out that aromas are so powerful for precisely the same reason they are hard to verbalize. I’m at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in Napa Valley this week. The first session today was by Sue Langstaff on Sensory Analytics and included a brief crash course on the physiology of smell. That was as eye-opening as the segment on wine faults was sinus clearing.

All of our senses — except smell — send information they collect through the thalamus. That part of the brain does some quick analysis then relays the data to the proper portion of the brain for further processing, the visual cortex for example. The thalamus is also very important in the processing of language.

Aromas bypass the thalamus entirely. They go from the olfactory bulb to part of the amygdala. The amygdala is also crucial for processing long-term memories and some aspects of emotion. So, with apologies to the brain surgeons among you who will be writhing in pain at this generalization, our sense of smell is uniquely tied to our memories and emotions but is more separated from our words than the other senses.

If someone points to a lemon and asks you its color, you immediately say yellow. If I tell you a car is fire engine red, you know exactly what I mean. If I tell you that a wine smells like blueberries, you will have a general sense of what I mean. But the association isn’t nearly as strong as that of red with fire engines.

When I say “blueberry,” an image probably springs to your mind, even though I’m talking about a scent. You may also think “round,” and “blue.” But your mind will not create an aromatic picture. To get a sense for the aroma, you will conjure up a memory, a time when you ate blueberry pancakes or had blueberries on your cereal.

When I arrived at Meadowood today, the weather was beautiful. The air was dry and cool. There was a slight breeze. It carried aromas from the surrounding forest. The woods here include various evergreens and laurel trees. The earth is dry and dusty. It is covered with leaves left from Fall, pine needles, an assortment of grasses, flowers and bushes. Nearby was The Grill, adding a trace of seared meat to the air. I took all this in almost instantly when I got out of the car. It gave me an immediate sense of this location. It made me think of camping in the woods as a teenager. I felt happy and safe. But my brain did not immediately generate a list of everything I could sense. Nor did it break down the melange of scents into its individual components. Yet, in the future, similar aromas will remind me of this day.

If you taste wine regularly with a group of people, you get to know each other’s descriptive idiosyncrasies. In my group, I’m known for associating wines’ aromas with memories of things from my childhood: construction paper, jumping in a pile of leaves, a baseball glove. They have aromatic associations that are very strong for me. Now I know why.

Alas, specific memories are powerful but personal. My baseball glove probably smelled differently than yours because it was made from different leather, lay on different dirt, was rubbed with different oil, etc. Using memories to describe an odor to someone isn’t as effective as “fire engine red” is for color.

I’m not sure if knowing all of this will help me better describe wine. I hope so. I also hope it makes you feel better about not smelling exactly the same things in a wine that I do, or not being able to conjure up a clear aromatic picture of a wine based on a mere list of fruits, flowers and minerals. The best thing, though, is knowing that by enjoying — and smelling — wine with friends, we can create wonderful new memories that may be recalled by a random whiff when we least expect it.

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 Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. "Brogan Smells the Wine" photo by J. Nathan Matias. All rights reserved.