The shimmering emerald cast of flooded rice paddies dominates the Japanese countryside during summer. Come fall, the rice is harvested not only to help feed the nation, but also to make its most distinctive and famous of drinks, sake.
On the surface, it seems easy to connect the basics of wine and sake (SAH-kay). As vineyards are for wine, so rice paddies are for sake. Both beverages are fermented; they are both brought to life through the interplay of tradition and modern technology overseen by skilled craftspeople; and the range of flavors of premium sake can rival that of fine wine. Yet there are important differences. Sake is more delicate, subtle and lightly flavored than wine, with only one-third the natural acidity. Sake is more alcoholic as well, with most versions containing 15 percent to 17 percent alcohol.
To see what the growing world of sake is all about, senior editor Bruce Sanderson and I tasted more than 50 Japanese sakes, drawn from some of the best categories, in Wine Spectator's New York office in January. They were tasted blind in Bordeaux-style wineglasses and parsed into three groups: Outstanding, Very Good, and Good. (A handful of the sakes tasted were not of high enough quality to warrant inclusion in this report.)
Overall, we found impressive quality. These premium sakes are a far cry from the simple and musky-tasting (and usually cheap) sakes, served warm from small carafes, that have been the staple of most Japanese restaurants in the United States until recently. Many of the best sakes come from small, artisanal Japanese producers who are seeking new markets in the U.S. and Europe. Since hundreds of sakes are imported from Japan each year, our list of recommended sakes is by no means exhaustive, but all of the sakes noted in this story offer a delicious introduction to this flavorful beverage.
Today, the best sakes are fine for sipping on their own, either slightly chilled or at room temperature. They also go naturally with the elegant flavors of Japanese cuisine, especially sushi, but can pair nicely with Western cuisines as well, including fish, poultry and pork dishes.
Cracking the sake code can be intimidating at first, even for the most knowledgeable wine lover. The quality designations as well as the Japanese calligraphy on the bottles can leave the uninitiated in the lurch. It's best to become familiar with a few key terms, try sakes in varying styles and build on your knowledge to identify the producers you like. Fortunately, there's an easily accessible quality hierarchy that can quickly open up the fascinating and alluring flavors of sake.
In our tastings, six types of sake rank at the top of the quality pyramid, representing about 20 percent of all sakes made. They encompass three types that rely only on water, rice, yeast and the critical mold known as koji in their production—junmai daiginjo, junmai ginjo and junmai—and three to which a small amount of distilled alcohol has been added—daiginjo, ginjo and honjozo. (The alcohol is added not to increase potency but to boost aromas and flavors in these sakes.)
The most refined and most winelike of sakes are junmai daiginjo. In our tastings, five rated Outstanding. They are typically priced at more than $50 a bottle, with some bottles costing upward of $100. Given the labor-intensive process to make the finest sakes, the added price for the highest quality versions is money well spent. The varying flavors and styles of the junmai daiginjo are reflective of sake's complexity. In a powerful savory style, with roasted and nutty flavors, is the Akita Seishu Dewatsuru Hihaku ($86) from northern Honshu island; in a fruitier style is the Kirinzan Niigata ($70), also from Honshu, featuring white fruit flavors and spicy notes; and a lush and creamy version, with rich pear and lychee flavors, is the Miyasaka Nagano Masumi Seventh Heaven ($57).
There's plenty of drinking pleasure to be found in other categories as well, including ginjo and junmai ginjo. These sakes provide supple and savory flavors that, though not as refined as those of junmai daiginjo, are engaging in their own right. And they come at lower prices. An Outstanding ginjo is the Hinomaru Jozo Akita Manabito ($36), with subtle sage, cedar and juniper flavors. The Daimon Junmai Ginjo Osaka Mukune Root of Innocence ($43), also Outstanding, exhibits apple and citrus flavors that feature rich notes of mushroom.
Sake, as simple as the ingredients sound, is one of the most complex beverages to make. Sake has been called "rice wine," but that is a misnomer. Producing sake is more akin to making beer, but involves a much more complicated process that takes place in sake breweries, called kura in Japanese.
The degree to which the rice grain is milled and polished is key to quality. Polishing is used to get to the starch at the center of the grain; polishing also rids the grain of proteins and fats that can lead to off flavors. The more polishing, the more refined and delicate the taste of the sake. For example, junmai daiginjo retains no more than 50 percent of the original grain and sometimes as little as 35 percent, whereas junmai ginjo features 60 percent of the grain and junmai 70 percent. The time spent polishing the rice, and the diminution of raw material, results in a higher price.
"There is a really strong correlation between price and quality because of the rice milling. If you want to try something better, unfortunately you have to pay a little more, but you are universally rewarded," says U.S.-based sake expert Timothy Sullivan, who runs the website UrbanSake.com.
As far as tasting sake, the method is much the same as it is with wine, although because most sakes have very little color, a visual evaluation is less useful. Taking in the aromas can help gauge a sake's subtleties. Then you take some in your mouth, swish, and spit or swallow, depending on your preference. When you exhale, you'll notice the particularly delicate flavors that sake offers.
One other difference between wine and sake? You don't age sake. Its flavors are best enjoyed within 18 months of bottling. The goal is to taste, as closely to the toji's vision in the kura as possible, the purest and freshest flavors from four simple ingredients that open up a new world of taste.
HOW SAKE IS MADE
• Sake rice is milled into polished grains.
• Washed rice is steeped in water before steaming.
• Koji (mold) is used to convert rice starch to sugars.
• Yeast is added to the mash to start fermentation.
• Fermentation takes from 20 to 40 days to complete.
• Most sakes are filtered and pasteurized prior to sale.