Sake is neither wine nor beer but stands alone as a distinctive beverage. Nevertheless, the wine community embraces sake as one of its own.
For example, sake alone was the featured beverage in a seminar on wa-shoku – traditional Japanese cuisine – at the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa. The nine dishes in the bento box were intended to be paired with four sakes. Not a single glass of chardonnay or merlot was in sight.
And earlier this year sake constituted one of the competitive classes at the TexSom International Wine Awards inside the hulking Irving Convention Center northwest of Dallas. Nearly 50 sakes of several diverse styles were entered and evaluated by four judges, including Toshio Ueno and Sally Mohr.
Ueno is a certified master sake sommelier, executive instructor for the Sake School of America in Los Angeles and the sake specialist for the Japanese food distributor Mutual Trading Co. Inc., also of Los Angeles. He teamed with chef Ichiro Tsuji of the Napa restaurant Morimoto to present the seminar on sake in Napa Valley.
Mohr, the second woman in the United States to earn the title of master sommelier, is the former owner of a wine shop in Boulder, Colo., sits on the board of the Sake Education Council and pursues her passion for sake with trips to Japan.
During breaks in their deliberations, they brought me up to speed on the sake scene.
In Japan, the future of sake looks shaky. Sales languished in the wake of the recession, but have picked up over the past two years, particularly among younger women. Overall Japan’s younger population is shrinking, Ueno says. Besides, Mohr notes, “The younger generation is not into sake. They’re into beer and cocktails. They think sake is an old man’s drink.”
In the United States, on the other hand, where about 30 percent of Japan’s sake production is exported, sales are robust, indicates Ueno. At Oto’s Marketplace in Sacramento, general manager Russell Oto reports that sake sales have risen about 1 percent over the past year.
Surprisingly, an estimated 70 percent of the sake sold in the United States is made domestically, notes Ueno. Northern California has several major sake houses, including Gekkeikan Sake USA at Folsom. Across the nation, boutique sake producers are joining the surge of artisan winemakers, distillers and brewers.
Become familiar with a few basic sake terms
Nevertheless, sake is a minor player at the American table beyond Japanese restaurants, especially sushi bars, which raises the question: How should Americans curious about sake start to get a grip on the range and pleasure it can provide?
Mohr suggests that the sake pilgrim become familiar with a few basic sake terms such as the two major sake classifications: “junmai” (translating literally as “pure rice” because no alcohol is added) and “honjozo” (fortified sake).
“Honjozo was created for economic reasons during and after (World War II), but now it is a technique to stop fermentation at the optimal quality point, extracting favorable aromas and flavors from sake mash and also making it light and dry,” Ueno says. At sake competitions in Japan, honjozo sakes customarily win the higher awards, he adds.
Other key terms include “nigori” (unfiltered sake), “genshu” (raw, undiluted sake that can pack up to 21 percent alcohol instead of the usual 15 percent), “koshu” (sake aged more than three years, giving it more spice, smoke and earthiness) and “kimoto” (hand-churned sakes that have encouraged the natural growth of lactic-acid bacteria).
“It’s complicated, but not very complicated, like wine,” Mohr says. “It takes a lot of trial and error.”
She lists a couple of other key terms to watch for on sake labels:
▪ Sake Meter Value or SMV: a guide to how dry or sweet a sake is. “A positive number is dry while a negative number is sweet, with ‘0’ being neutral. The higher the number the more dry or sweet the sake will taste,” Mohr says.
▪ Nama: unpasteurized sake that should be kept chilled to prevent spoilage.
She suggests that neophytes find a Japanese market or a wine shop with an extensive sake selection that is kept fresh via steady rotation of inventory. When you find a sake you especially like, stick with that producer as you explore other styles. And be prepared to invest in pricier sakes. “You don’t have to understand the hierarchy of sake grades as the price will give you an indication of what grade you are purchasing. The higher the price, the higher the grade,” Mohr says.
Ueno recommends that diners in Japanese restaurants order sake by the glass, changing their choice with each course to get a sense of how styles vary and how they work with assorted foods.
You can pick a sake to go with any kind of food
Sally Mohr, master sommelier
Wine-and-cheese parties helped Americans develop their fondness for wine, and he believes the pairing of sake and cheeses can help heighten American appreciation for sakes. By and large, creamy and salty cheeses pair exceptionally well with sake, Ueno says. “Oh my god, it’s crazy,” he says of matching a robust blue cheese with a junmai daiginjo sake on the sweeter side. “The creaminess of the cheese comes out.”
Mohr likes a kimoto-style sake with spaghetti and meatballs if the tomato-based sauce is more light than intense. “Kimoto sake has the funk and earthiness to stand up to the meat,” she says. She also has found that traditionally made sakes such as yamahai and kimoto have the build to accompany hamburgers, and that daiginjo sakes are ideal with such seafood as a simply prepared Dover sole. Vegetable dishes can be a challenge, but she leans toward a nama sake that’s drier, say with an SMV of plus-1 to plus-4.
At the sake and wa-shoku tasting in Napa Valley, I found the Katoukichibee Shouten Born Gold Junmai Daiginjo Sake ($28/$42), which had a vitality and herbalness suggestive of sauvignon blanc, went especially well with light- to medium-bodied dishes featuring seafood.
The most versatile of the four, however, was the citric and nutty Shata Shuzo Tengumai Yamahai Jikommi Sake ($22/$25), which had the richness and balance to accompany gracefully the heavier seafood dishes as well as fried chicken.
Eventually, speculates a hopeful Mohr, sake well may be added to more wine lists in mainstream American restaurants. “Why isn’t it in more American restaurants?” she muses. “It goes with anything. You can pick a sake to go with any kind of food.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.