Saké for Wine Lovers

Mark Rashap, WFFT's Director of Wine Education, tells us why we - as wine lovers - should jump on the saké bandwagon.

We are excited as the Austin Wine Experience is quickly approaching! Join us on October 1 for the finest educational wine experience in Austin! In preparation for Saké for Wine Lovers at 4 pm, I’d like to highlight a few points that make saké both a wonder of precise and tradition-laden techniques and something so complex it forces consumers to go with a safer beverage. Don’t let the foreign sounding names turn you off. Saké can be one of the most enjoyable and intricate wines (rice wine that is) out there.

In the wine world, we spend endless time digging into the precise origin of the grapes and how the vine interacts with its microclimate. However, saké rice can come from anywhere in Japan. While there are several hundred strains of rice, about 100 are commonly used for premium saké. We know that table grapes and wine grapes are completely different in terms of thickness of their skin, sweetness, and tannin. Similarly, saké rice is different from table rice in that the starches, which are eventually converted into alcohol, are concentrated in the center of the grain with the outer layers containing more proteins, amino acids, and other compounds that lend impurities.

Because of this, one of the first steps in saké production is to mill or “polish” the grain.

Removing the outer layers reveals the core of starches and results in a purer and more delicate flavor. The percent of the grain remaining after polishing is referred to as the seimaibuai (say-my-boo-eye) and can vary drastically from 70%-35%. This percentage is the sole factor in determining if the saké is Ginjo (at least 60% remaining after polish) or Daigingo (at least 50%). In the saké seminar, we’re going to taste a variety of polishing from a single brewery to see how that affects the overall character. This experiment will culminate in tasting a special saké with a 23% polish (that’s only 23% of the original grain!).

Another complicating factor of saké for wine lovers is a different definition of the concept of terroir. We know this term in wine to denote the cumulative factors of a vineyard, soil, climate, and variety - all which reliably express themselves as a character of the final product. Therefore, if you know you’ve liked a wine from Pauillac in Bordeaux, then chances are you will find similar pleasure from a neighboring producer. With saké, you must think of terroir in a different way; though the rice can come from anywhere in Japan, the water source gives some sense of regionality. Water is a huge part of making saké because it is added to the fermentation and used in almost every stage of production (steeping, steaming, and fermentation). For example, a saké from the Niigata province might show differently from a saké from the Fushimi district of Kyoto. It can be very rewarding to get to know the various regions of Japan.

Many saké experts are starting to talk about terroir in the sense of “terroir of the brewery,” or “House Style.” Because rice does not contain fermentable sugar (as ripe grapes do) or enzymes to convert the starches into fermentable sugar (as beer grain does), there is an added step in saké production which involves allowing a mold called Koji to affect a portion of the rice (20-30%). This Koji converts starch to sugar and is very affected by the technique of the brewers. In this sense, saké is more like Fino sherry or Champagne, where the practices of the cellar in the biological ageing of the solera (Fino) or the long lees aging in the bottle (Champagne) potentially has a larger impact than where the grapes are grown. As you enjoy more saké, it is worth trying to get to know the house style of a few breweries.

A last point I’ll make here is the difference involved when alcohol is added or not. One practice is not better than the other, just yields different results. When you see the word Junmai that means that no alcohol is added. Junmai must be at least a 70% polish. You then see the additional category of Junmai Ginjo (at least a 60% polish) or Junmai Daiginjo (at least 50%) polish. When the words Ginjo or Daiginjo is NOT proceeded by the Junmai, that means brewer’s alcohol was added though the polish is the same and usually displays more robust flavors. While I personally prefer the Junmai category, sampling the various styles is super fun and informative.

The first step in enjoying saké is to not become overwhelmed by the complexity. If you take it one step at a time, it all makes sense and can open you up to an entire world of different flavors. I’m constantly learning about and amazed by how interesting saké can be. I hope you join us for the saké seminar at the Austin Wine Experience! Buy your tickets here.