I was reminded the other night of how the average wine newbie must feel confronted with a wine list in French. The names of the wines and the grape varieties mean nothing. You have no idea what they taste like and what to order. Panic sets in.
The occasion was a very smart sake dinner at the Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Umu which I’ve been to before to try out champagne with Japanese food. (Life’s tough for us food and wine writers!) It was special not only for the quality of the food - an authentic Kyoto-style kaiseke dinner- but of the sake - rare bottles which the brewers themselves had brought over and presented at table.
The occasion marked the creation of a new sake category in the International Wine and Spirits challenge which the brewers, all formally dressed in elaborately decorated kimonos, had come over to judge. Last year just two sakes were submitted. This year there were 224, an occasion for a lot of speechifying before the dinner got under way.
I wish I could give you a blow by blow account of how each sake tasted and how it went with the food but I realise (like the wine newbie) I don’t have the right vocabulary or enough experience of sake against which to compare the ones we drank. So some general information, observations and conclusions:
* Almost all the sakes we were served were of daiginjo quality which, as you may know if you read Natash Hughes' recent article on the subject, has 50% of the outer surface of the rice polished away. Most of those were junmai daiginjo which means that they were unfortified by alcohol, another characteristic common to top quality sakes.
* Like wine or beer sake can vary enormously depending on the quality and provenance of the raw ingredients - rice, yeast and water - and the way they are treated, particularly whether they are aged in oak or whether or not they are pasteurised or filtered. Some are made in a more modern style than others - usually recognisable from the style of the bottles and labels. The 'new world' of sake, if you like.
* Alcohol levels can range significantly from 10-11% ABV to the more normal 17% ABV plus. Not all sake is strong.
* Appreciating sake is as much about texture as flavour. Although some are relatively high in alcohol they’re never 'hot’ but strong enough to make you sip rather than swig. Even with those that are matured in oak there are no tannins or bitterness, simply a slightly oxidative nutty character. Most have a fine, almost silky mouthfeel that enables them to pair with foods of equally delicate textures and subtle flavours like tofu and sashimi
* The temperature at which you serve different sakes is critical. “A temperature change of just a single degree can cause subtle changes in the flavour and aroma of a sake” advises the Akasha Tai website www.akashi-tai.com.
Contrary to the impression most people have of sake, most is served cold rather than hot, but slightly warmer than a dry white wine - round about 10°C (instead of 7-8°C) And hot sakes should be served lukewarm.
With one course, a superb dish of wagyu teriyaki we had the same sake - a Yamahi Junmai genshu (unpasteurised) - served cool and warm. The effect of the beef was to accentuate the cool sake’s acidity and the warm sake’s nuttiness and earthiness. The brewer explained that the sake came from an area which enjoyed full-bodied tastes in their food. “If you warm sake it becomes more mellow and warms up your body”
* Although the general perception is that sake should be drunk young, fine sakes will age. We drank one from 1999 and another, a 2002 Masuizumi Funmai Daiginjo Special, which the brewer, said would drink well for 10-20 years 'like a Corton Charlemagne'.
* Even the finest sake doesn’t draw attention away from the food, it seamlessly blends with it. In terms of primary tastes and flavours it works well with salty, smoky and umami flavours and, although not traditionally drunk with sushi, picks up perfectly on the delicate sweetness of sushi rice. It also has an affinity with the hot/bitter taste of wasabi and other hot pickles and relishes.
* My favourite sake of the meal was the Junmai 80 from the Akashi brewery which falls outside the usual categories in being only 80% polished and brewed for 3 years which gave it an extraordinarily rich, creamy texture. They also set great store by the quality of their rice which is grown in the same area as the brewery. Apparently it sold out the first time they make it and so they’ve had to wait 3 years to make the next batch of which we got a sneak preview.
* Finally to give you a further idea of the history and craft that goes into sake production, one sake was presented by the Yoshiyasu Sudo, the 55th generation to be in charge of the Sudo brewery. “Originally we were members of the warrior class, and sake brewing began after the economy came to be based on rice, and local economies stabilized" he explains on the company website. "Sake brewing was a by-product of the main product, rice. For this reason, there were two names associated with our family: Buza Emon was the warrior name, and Gen Uemon for the sake brewing name.”
The cost of the meal by the way was $225, sake included, a very reasonable £112. When I went to a kaiseke restaurant in Kyoto (thankfully as a guest) I discovered afterwards the bill was just short of £600 ($1200) without drinks!
A useful sake website is www.sake-world.com. Individual producer sites such as
www.sudohonke.co.jp/english/index.html are also interesting.