celebrating national sake day

Friday, October 01, 2010

Though I have been assured by the kind people at Vine Connections, an importer of Argentine wines and Japanese sake, that October 1st is “Sake Day” in Japan, I confess that verification has eluded me.

In fact, the front page of today’s Japan Times makes no reference to sake, though there is a compelling photo of a baby monkey named Miwa riding a wild boar named Uribo at the Fukuchiyama City Zoo. (Perhaps after having just a little too much sake???).

Official or not, the opportunity to do a guided sake tasting was presented, and I swallowed the bait. Vine Connections sake guru Lisa Johnson sent five different sakes, which I dutifully chilled (hot sake is really out, so if you think hot sake in a wood box is the bomb, you’d better think again) and sipped along with her (via phone).

Once in awhile I venture off the wine trail into some related path, and it is generally quite fascinating. So here is a quick condensed version of what I learned and tasted in anticipation of national sake day.

There are several different grade levels for sake. Futsu is hot sake, the majority of table sake, and the lowest quality level. Serving it hot disguises the off aromas and flavors. Junmai (meaning “pure”) is the lowest level of premium sake, meaning at least 30% of the rice hull (where the fats and proteins reside) has been milled away. If distilled alcohol is added to any sake, even a higher grade, it won’t say Junmai.

Junmai Ginjo (40% or more milled) is a higher premium level. Junmai DaiGinjo (50% or more milled) is superpremium. Nigori means unfiltered. Nigori sakes are slightly cloudy, a little sweet, and should be gently stirred before serving.

The higher the grade, the more labor-intensive (and therefore more expensive). With sake more than wine, price and quality go hand in hand. Only 12% of all sake is considered premium; and less than 6% is ginjo grade.

These premium sakes are aromatic and should be lightly chilled. They can be stored in a wine cellar for 1 -2 years before drinking, but once opened they should be refrigerated, and will keep for up to a month.

Freshness counts! Look for a stamp on the front label indicating the ship date from the brewery; usually six months after it was brewed. So from that date it will stay fresh for about two years.

Vine Connections brings in about 28 different sakes at different grade levels. Here are notes and prices (for 720 ml bottles) on the five we tasted.

Tozai ‘Living Jewel’ Junmai ($19). Smooth, almost creamy, melon, white root veggie, hints of heat in the back, a little anise threaded into the finish also, confectioner’s sugar. Nice long flavor.

Rihaku ‘Wandering Poet’ Junmai Ginjo ($32). More full-bodied, rounder, some floral notes, and plenty of orange and melon fruit flavor. This is forward and quite delicious.

Konteki ‘Tears of Dawn’ Daiginjo ($39). Not Junmai (some distilled alcohol has been added). I thought I could taste the distilled spirits, something resembling a watered down grappa. Gentle, melony and showing some banana flavor, creamy and delicate.

Takasago Ginga Shizuku ‘Divine Droplets’ Junmai Daiginjo ($72). Clearly the smoothest and most complex, refined and elegant, with a mix of elements including some sweet grain, some melon, light papaya, a firmly concentrated mid-palate and exceptional length.

Tozai ‘Snow Maiden’ Junmai Nigori ($19). Unfiltered. A little more sweetness, and a lot of banana flavor apparent. Bananas and cream, smooth and fleshy. Match with macaroon cookies.

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