A newbie's guide to sake from wine writer Natasha Hughes.
There was a time – and it wasn’t so long ago – that ordering sake in a restaurant was simple. The only question you needed to ask yourself was whether you wanted a small flask of warmed rice wine or a large one.
These days, however, any Japanese restaurant worth its naturally fermented soy sauce will offer you an almost bewildering list of sakes. While many of these restaurants will have a sake sommelier, or at least someone who knows the list well enough to help you steer your way through to ordering a bottle, there are some factors you might want to bear in mind when making your choice.
The first thing you should know about sake (apart from the fact that it is made from fermented rice) is that there are several different styles. These are defined by the degree to which the rice grains are polished before fermentation.
‘If you think about a rice grain, the closer to the centre of the grain you get, the purer the starch,’ explains Ayako Watanabe of Smithfield’s Saki restaurant. ‘The husk contains oils and proteins, so the more of it you polish them away the more you refine the resulting sake.’
Basic sake – often drunk warm – is known as futsu-shu. ‘It’s like table wine,’ says Watanabe. ‘Most futsu-shu is commodity sake, but you also find jizake, which is an artisan-produced version, and is often a reflection of regionality.’ Whether it’s being made for the mass market or on a small scales, rice that will be used for futsu-shu sake is polished to a minimal degree, if at all.
The next notch up on the quality scale is honjozo-shu sake, in which the rice is polished in such a way that a minimum of 70% of the grain remains. Ginjo-shu sake rice is milled so that only 60% of the core remains, while daiginjo-shu is a further refinement, with a minimum of 50% polishing. ‘The more of the rice grain you polish away, the more full-bodied and complex the resulting sake will be,’ says Jean-Louis Naveilhan, one of the founders of sake distributor Isake.
So far so simple, but from the honjozo-shu level upwards, another factor comes into play – and that’s whether or not the sake has been fortified by the addition of alcohol. Pure, unfortified sake is known as junmai-shu, and it tends to be somewhat smoother than the fortified stuff.
You add another layer of complexity when you start to think about the varieties of rice that can be used to make sake. ‘Each type of rice contributes to the tastes and aromas of the finished sake,’ explains Naveilhan, ‘much as the grape variety used is an important part of the flavour profile of a wine. For instance, the yamadanishiki grain is grown right across Japan, from north to south, and can be thought of as being the equivalent of Chardonnay.’ Terroir comes into play too and styles of sake can vary according to the climate of the region where the rice has been grown, the purity of the water used and the style and preferences of the individual brewer.
In short, navigating your way around a sake list is like trying to pick your way through one composed of Burgundian wines in that mastering the complexities fully can be a lifetime’s work.
Having said that, there are a few basic rules of thumb to help you out when you’re matching sake to food:
‘Honjozo is simple and light, and tends to go better with simple dishes like salads and starters,’ says Naveilhan. ‘Daiginjo, on the other hand, is full-bodied and complex – this not only affects the price of the sake, it also means that it needs to be matched with richer, more complex dishes.’
Meanwhile, on the basis that tasting is believing, Watanabe urged me to try a honjozo sake from the Akashi-Tai brewery served both warm and lightly chilled. The cooler version seemed more delicate, and its smoky flavours worked well with an octopus salad served with a sesame dressing – the more pungent warmed cup harmonised beautifully with a punchy dish of grilled eggplant with a red miso dressing. The sake had less impact on a dish of vegetable tempura, a pairing that made the sake’s flavours recede into the background. Sakes can also work extremely well with Western dishes, and Watanabe says this style is a good pairing for seafood pasta.
Nanbu Bijin brewery’s Ginga Ginjo has a light greenish-yellow tinge and almost floral, fruity aromas. ‘Because it’s so pure it tends to refine the flavours of the foods it’s teamed with,’ says Watanabe. ‘I like it with salads and grilled fish, and it’s a perfect match with miso-marinated black cod.’
We rounded up our tasting with an unusual sake made from unpolished brown rice that had been aged for three years before being bottled (most sake is designed to be drunk within a few months of bottling). The Akashi-Tai Genmai Yamadanishiki had relatively high levels of acidity and distinctively oxidative aromas of nuts and mushrooms, along with a trace of curry spice.
‘Someone suggested you can match it with Indian food,’ says Wakana Omija, the brewery’s international operations manager, ‘and I can see why because there’s definitely something spicy and tangy about it. My own preference is to pair it with a beef stew.’ ‘We like to match it with a dish of cracked rice and fish steamed in cherry leaves,’ says Watanabe, ‘it’s a really fresh combination.’
To my mind, the sake was reminiscent of a Savagnin from the Jura – and one of my favourite matches for this style of wine is a soup made from Jerusalem artichokes to which a dash of truffle oil has been added as a final garnish. There’s no good reason the sake shouldn’t work as well with the dish as the wine does, although I’ve yet to try the experiment.
Experimentation is actually the key word here for the truth is Japan has little cultural history of sake and food matching. Even the most experienced sake tasters are flying almost as blind as total novices, so there's every reason to keep an open mind.
Natasha Hughes is a freelance food and drink writer who writes for Decanter, Delicious, Off Licence News and Traveller, as well as the wine website www.wine-pages.com. She has recently passed the first two stages of her MW