WSET Level 1 in Sake

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fantastic!

The WSET (and their partners) currently run both Level 1 and Level 3 courses in Sake.

Dom Pérignon Reserve de L’Abbaye

Part 14 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

As my Dom Pérignon retrospective reaches the release of the 1992 Vintage, it seemed an appropriate time to step to the side somewhat, in to a place where the 1992 is the current release.

RDLA Labels

I’m referring to Dom Pérignon Réserve de L’Abbaye (also known as Dom Pérignon Gold, or simply Gold Reserve).  This is a stand-alone series of vintage releases for the Japanese market only (also available through Hong Kong fine wine merchant Ginsberg + Chan), and a product that you rarely hear about in the UK/Europe unless you go hunting for information.  Consequently, very little is written about it and, where it is talked about, it invariably isn’t written in English.

As alluded to with the use of the term ‘Gold’ (itself based on the fact that the labels and covering foil on the bottle are coloured gold), this brand offshoot is intended as an ultra-deluxe product that has seen extended cellar ageing, and is only available in limited quantities.  The vintages are released at circa 20 years of age which puts them on a vague par with the P3 releases (Plenitude, formerly Oenothéque), but I say vague as the 1990 RDLA was released in 2009 whereas the 1990 P3 has only recently hit the shelves.  There is also a passing resemblance between the two products as the 1990 P3 also has a gold style label.

Other packaging difference to note on the RDLA is that it has its own distinct capsule atop the cork, the back labels are all in Japanese and, more interestingly, that they also include a ‘Limited Edition’ serial number.  Dom Pérignon are well known to be evasive on the subject of how many bottles they produce each year but, do these serial numbers give us some hint towards production runs?  As you can see from the below image, the back label for the 1992 is only 5 characters long, ergo a top limit of 100k bottles, however the back label for the 1988 is 6 characters long taking us up to a potential 1 million bottles.

RDLA Backlabels

Champagne experts have repeatedly made guesses at the production levels for Dom Pérignon and put it at somewhere around 5 million bottles (based purely on the juices produced from the number of vines they have access to), so allocating anywhere near a million bottles for a niche Japan only product seems a tad much.  It’s more than likely that the serial number level has been inflated for the 1988 Vintage, and we’re not much the wiser after all.

The bottle comes packaged in a lovely wooden case, not unlike the style used for the first releases in the Oenothéque series, and comes with a tasting booklet that has the serial number stamped on the back and doubles as a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’.  All the bottles in circulation are the standard 75cl bottles, with no magnums or larger formats in production.

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It’s unclear as to whether RDLA is the same base blend as regular Dom Pérignon and the bottles are simply partitioned for the Japanese market, or whether it is tailored to the market taste.  I did find one review from that rare someone who had tasted both the standard 1992 and the 1992 RDLA and they noted that it seemed sweeter in taste than usual.

The first vintage that I can find reference to is the 1976, which has been followed up by the 1978, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1990 and most recently the 1992.  Reflecting the fact that these late releases have spent a serious amount of additional time resting on their yeasts (lees) in the cellars, the prices for the older vintages run from £1200 per bottle, down to circa £800 for the latest two releases.

Noticeably absent are the vintages of 1980 and 1983, and this brings with it some interesting conclusions.  It’s understandable that 1980 may have been skipped due to the fact that it was a small harvest and probably sold through at the time (although this didn’t stop the equally small 1978 vintage becoming an RDLA), but 1983 was a huge crop and the largest recorded at that time.  Technically this should have meant that it was available, but its absence from the range is probably down to the weather conditions of the year, which were damp at harvest time, and this meant that the large quantity of grapes lacked the structure to age satisfactorily (indeed no Rosé was produced for 1983 either).  Interestingly, both the 1980 and 1983 received Oenothéque releases, but the 1978 did not.  Perhaps the two lines were sharing allocations?

Overall the RDLA is a curious aside in the Dom Pérignon story, and a product that I hope to taste myself one day, not least as a Dom Pérignon enthusiast, but if only to be able to judge if the blend is in any way different to the standard vintage.

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