Sake is pretty hot right now in the wine world, with The Wine Show even giving over part of episode 2 of their 2nd series to this Japanese style. Personally it is something I’ve never been exposed to and, knowing very little about it in terms of the production methods, the alcohol content, or even the final retail price, I jumped at the chance to get involved in a recent WSET Level 1 course.
For anyone familiar to the production of wines and spirits certain things were very similar. Frankly this was a god-send as, even with this being an introductory level 1 course, things would very soon head off towards the unknown.
The primary base ingredient for Sake is the starch-rich rice grain. Unlike grapes, which have a natural sugary liquid, just as in the production of spirits, trapped sugars within the starch need to be teased out (via koji mould) and converted to sugars. Once this is done, the yeast are then able to eat the sugar in the normal way of standard fermentation.
Whilst 3 things remain constant to a Sake – they all have to go under fermentation, filtration and finally bottling, a big differentiator is whether high-strength distilled alcohol is added, as this completely changes the style and labelling terms.
Junmai (which translates as ‘pure rice’) sees no extra alcohol added, and these sakes then continue up the quality levels to junmai ginjo and on to junmai daiginjo (‘dai’ literally meaning ‘big’). If high-strength alcohol is added, a junmai will become a honjozo instead, which will then move up the quality scale to become a ginjo and then a daiginjo. All semi- sensible so far.
Rather like a Chinese restaurant you next overlay your style to your base wine to create the full combination.
There are sparkling sakes, cloudy unfiltered variants (Nigori), unpasteurised sakes (Nama) and aged ones (Koshu), and you can end up as we did, trying a sparkling nigori junmai diaginjo. Added to this, in the exam at the end, you were expected to be able to reel off the Japanese language/letters for each of the styles in scope. Not an easy thing to do, although well achievable as it transpired, due to a few hints and tips from our tutor.
Various other things became apparent throughout the session, such as the way that the individual grains of rice are polished in order to strip away the malted creamier outer layers giving way to the fruitier floral aromas derived from the centre of the grain. The more time and effort that goes in to this process, giving a higher polished ratio, is what gives a substantially different flavour profile to the more expensive examples (the ones we tried on the day made it up to ~£70 a bottle).
Sake is a wine made to be drunk young, within 1-2 years and, excepting the Koshu style (dating to 2008), all of the wines on show were from 2017.
Here’s a quick rundown of the extremely interesting bottles (and can!) that we tried on the day, most of which came with their own cute descriptive name. Such was the enthusiasm from the students involved that a couple of people brought their own sakes in to be part of the line-up, and I was extremely pleased to be seated next to a Japanese student who was able to provide me with more depth on the subject than the course was there to provide.
Style: honjózó, “Sky Conqueror”, 70% polishing ratio, 15% abv – Malted cereal with a touch of banana (a flavour well expected in sake), this was earthy and meaty, but retained the malted porridge lactic style. Nice fresh acid.
Style: junmai daiginjo, “3 Peaks”, 33% polish, 15% abv – a touch of green to the usual water-white colour of sake, this had fresh banana and pear drop on the nose as well as sweet, ripe cantaloupe melon, pineapple and lychee. It’s amazing to step back and think that all of this flavour comes from grains of rice.
Style: junmai, “Waning Moon”, 50% polish, 16% abv – just like banana bread on the nose, a fairly high acid was joined by mushroom, earthy characters and umami on the palate.
Style: ginjo, “Konishi Silver”, 60% polish, 13.5% abv – Very floral nose, with smooth cream palate and a very light intensity. Refreshing lactic style with unripe banana and pear drops.
Style: daiginjo nama, “Snow Blossom”, 50% polish, 16% abv – despite the pretty name, this older unpasteurised example was past its best and gave off a little spritz and rotting vegetable.
Style: nama honjozo, 70% polish, 19% abv – A vibrant young example of the unpasteurised style (which lets youthful sakes stay more ‘alive’). Hard to explain, but his did have a zesty ‘alive’ quality in the glass and on the palate. Positively dancing with freshness, cream and lactic acid.
Style: junmai daigingo usu-nigori, “Misty Mountain”, 65% polish 17% abv – hints of candyfloss and confected fruit on the nose, full bodied cereal style, with high spice and umami.
Style: sparkling nigori “Pearl”, 45% polish, 12% abv – pear drops on the nose, the weight on the palate came in two layers, first the effervescence and then the fruit below. A short, but precise, finish.
Style: junmai daiginjo koshu, 40% polish, 15% abv – Nutty, almost like a golden tequila, with a good creamy texture. Some pickled vegetable on the nose, but not on the palate, and a medium finish.
This was a thoroughly interesting session with many take-homes, not least from the quality of the labelling, diversity of styles, and the sheer labour of love that goes in to making a traditional sake, but also in the fact that it adds an almost brand-new layer to my love of wine, and the wines are so hard to get hold of in the UK outside of specialist importers.
The WSET (and their partners) currently run both Level 1 and Level 3 courses in Sake.