In wine, you can find flavors from pink grapefruit to black raspberries. You won’t find those in sake. Why would you? It’s made of rice. Still, they use 87 types of rice making sake, a dozen different kinds of water and subtle brewing techniques going back 55 generations.
So what you can find in sake is startling. Earth, sandalwood, fennel, smoke, minerals -- even hard-to-define but much desired sense called umami.
A recent tasting of a dozen premium sakes was a learning experience.
My guide was Morgan Hartman, local sales manager for Vine Connections, which imports sake. She’s just back from a week-long, second-level sake class in Tokyo that included lectures, brewery visits, even blind tastings. Here are some things I learned:
Sake has its own vocabulary. Expert tasters find melon, banana, pineapple, vanilla and such. But they also describe it as explosivity, presence, persistence.
Some of the aromas and flavors are easily discernable even to beginners; others are not.
“Some of them are beyond what we can comprehend,” says Hartman.
Sake goes OK with sushi, but it’s not a brilliant match because both are made of rice, and so can be redundant. Sakes are brewed in various regions of Japan, in some of which people are more likely to eat pork and pickled vegetables than sushi.
The sake called “Bride of the Fox” is dry, spicy and explosive, so it’s a perfect match for a charcoaled New York strip. The light minerality of the sake called “Devine Droplets” pairs nicely with oysters, caviar and foie gras.
Sake pairs well with cheese. It even goes with those two vegetables that no grape wine can match – artichokes and asparagus. And since sake is low in acid, it goes with dishes that can be jarring with grape wine – ceviche, vinegar-based salad dressings and such.
Ironically, sake is gaining popularity in the United States just as it’s losing it in Japan. In Japan, 30-year-olds looking for something new are turning to western wines; they see sake as what their grandfathers drink. In the U.S., 30-year-olds who have learned the difference between chardonnay and chablis and also are seeking something new are turning to sake.
A major selling point for sake in America is that it is gluten-free and sulfite free; some is even kosher. Imagine sake at your seder.
Tasting sakes, while extremely pleasurable, takes a whole different mind set. Long-time wine fans are apt to approach it like wine, which doesn’t work. It makes us feel like amateurs again, which is humbling, but probably good for us.
In the tasting notes below, I’ve mixed my impressions with those of Hartman to show you the range of possibilities. Try some of these and see what you think. Let me know.
· Rihaku “Wandering Poet” Junmai Ginjo: earth, smoke, mushrooms, truffles, bananas, powerful; $16 per 300 milliliter bottle.
· Kanbara “Bride of the Fox” Junmai Ginjo: grilled nuts, white chocolate, citrus, intense; $17 per 300 milliliter bottle.
· Takasago “Divine Droplets” Junmai Daiginjo: minerals and spice, bananas, vanilla, peaches; $32 per 300-milliliter bottle.
· Nanbu Bijin “Southern Beauty” Junmai Ginjo: earthy, spicy, nutty, green apple and honeydew flavors; $18 per 300 milliliter bottle.
· Fukucho “Moon on the Water” Junmai Ginjo: vanilla, melon, licorice, fennel, allspice; $19 per 300 milliliter bottle.
· Ama No To “Heaven’s Door” Tokubetsu Junmai: earth, chocolate, herbs, apples, raisins; $17 per 300-milliliter bottle.
· Sato No Homare “Pride of the Village” Junmai Ginjo: strawberries, white chocolate, licorice, mint, pears; $24 per 300-milliliter bottle.
· Konteki “Tears of Dawn” Daiginjo: bananas, licorice, melons, minerals; $20 per 300 milliliter bottle.
· Tentaka Kuni “Silent Stream” Junmai Daiginjo: kiwi, limes, mint, fresh-cut hay, dust; $50 per 300-milliliter bottle.
· Ama No To “Time of Reflection” Junmai Daiginjo: camphor, pears, cacao, rich and mellow; $100 per 720-milliliter bottle.
· Nanbu Bijin “Ancient Pillars” Junmai Daiginjo: tangerines, limes, white chocolate, citrus, chocolate; $75 per 300-milliliter bottle.
· Mukune “Shadows of Katano” Junmai Ginjo Nigori: mushrooms, earth, sandalwood, licorice; $40 per 300-milliliter bottle
· Tozai “Snow Maiden” Jummai Nigori: pears, coconuts, pineapples, peaches; $10 per 300-milliliter bottle.