I am a sake novice: I may know a lot about wine, but sake is mostly outside my experience. Reading about it without having done any comparative tastings makes little sense, so last week when Le Verre en Cave in Geneva offered an evening class and tasting session, I decided to go.
Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned (experienced sake fans, you can probably stop reading now!):
Sake is not rice wine, although it is often called that and yes, it is made from fermented rice. The milling rate (seimaibuai), or the amount of original rice grain that remains after polishing is a key quality factor. The water from an area and the type and quality of rice used are two key quality factors, and they can affect the price. And the yeast used is another influencing factor, on taste and sometimes price.
It takes 30-40 days to ferment.
You can drink it cold or warm; the choice might depend on whether it’s drunk as an aperitif or with a meal, or the type of sake, or just plain personal preference. You can also serve it in any kind of glass; unlike wines, the shape of the glass has little impact on the aromas.
Like wine, you might want to have more than one type with a meal You can buy pasteurized but also fresh and non-pasteurized sake; the latter can be kept up to three weeks; otherwise up to one year. Also like wine, once you open a bottle you should drink it fairly quickly, as it loses its aromas; you can use a vacuum pump system to close it.
Aged sake will tend to have aromas of litchi. Sweet sakes are becoming more popular, perhaps especially with young people – and understanding dry versus sweet sake is not as straightforward as you might think. The alcohol level remains around 15-16%.
We tasted six sakes with a Kikisakeshi, Japanese sake expert; price range at the shop, CHF22-179.
The first two were Junmai, the third a Junmai Ginjo, as were the fourth and fifth, and the sixth was a Junmai Daiginjo. Within those groups there was considerable variation.
My favourite by far was Junmai Ginjo Matsuyamamii muroka from Eiko Shuzo brewery, served cool. It is an unpasteurized sake that won a gold medal: a fresh, dry and well-rounded sake with good flavour.
I was less keen on a sparkling sake, Rifoo, from the Chiyonoka me Shuzo brewery, although this is apparently popular with women or people who don’t like to drink large quantities of alcohol. It was served at the official reception at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. You can add ice to it or serve it with strawberry sorbet, I was told.