The Wonders of Japanese Sake (and How it Compares to Wine?)
As a wine guy, and a Frenchman who’s been drinking wine and exploring its intricacies all my adult life, when I arrived in Japan to learn more about the world of Sake, I wasn’t sure about what to expect.
Was I even going to like the beverage much? Enjoy tasting one Sake after another for a week?
It turned out I did, and very much so…
I found, in the culture of Japanese Sake, many similarities with the wonderful world of wine.
In its composition, its making, and its taste, and more importantly perhaps, in its ability to be enjoyed with and to elevate fine foods.
Sake, indeed, share many common traits with wine. Its deep roots into the local culture, and the local variations in relation with the regional gastronomy, is not the least of them…
After an outstanding press trip I attended touring mainly the Island of Shikoku in the South of Japan, and organized by the Japan Sake and ShoChu Makes Association (JSS), I gathered some thoughts about what Sake is, from the subjective view angle of a wine expert.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Sake, seen from a wine-loving European.
What makes Sake quite similar to wine? How is Sake made?
First, let’s clear up a misconception about Sake.
Too many still confuse Sake with its distilled version called shochu, or shōchū (焼酎).
Sake is not a strong distilled alcohol, but rather what you could call ‘rice wine’.
I mean, initially and traditionnaly, the word ‘sake’ used to refer to virtually any alcoholic beverage in Japan. But this was before all other alcoholic beverages were available, whiskeys, beer, wine, etc.
Sake now generally refers to what the Japanese call nihonshu (日本酒) or Seishu (清酒), or more simply just ‘sake’ while the distilled shochu is an entirely different product, like grappa or brandy is very different to wine!
Sake is made from rice and water that are fermented, obtaining through a natural process a beverage at 20% alcohol or so, that is then watered down a little to obtain a more palatable Sake at around 16% alcohol (say between 15% and 17% depending on the style or makers).
So as a beverage, Sake is similar to wine in the sense that it contains a similar amount of alcohol, making it a fine and food-friendly choice to harmoniously accompany a meal.
The Japanese insist on the fact that Sake in ‘brewed’ and not only fermented like wine.
This is due to the fact that the starch contained in rice has to be broken down into sugar before yeasts can ferment it (a process scientifically know as saccharification), much like in beer brewing where the starch in the grain has to be boiled (brewed) with natural enzymes from the grain before fermentation.
In Sake production, the starch is first broken down using a specialized and selected fungus called Koji in Japanese.
Rice is first steamed for it to absorb water and to become ‘eatable’ or more accurately ‘digestible’ by the fungus and its enzymes.
Then spores of Koji are spread over it, separating each grain of rice for an even inoculation, so the microorganisms can do their magic and make the sugar available for fermentation by the yeasts.
The rice is mixed with water to go through a three to five week fermentation process which results in a beverage containing about 20% alcohol, and the rest being mainly water.
Watch how Sake is made in video, as I take you inside a Sake brewery:
So, Sake has these similarities with wine, of being:
- Still (generally speaking, although sparkling Sakes to exist)
- Mostly made from water in its composition
- Moderately alcoholic (15%-17%)
- Delicately flavored with aromas and flavors coming the initial source of sugar (rice) and the fermentation.
- No flavoring is added to make Sake, just rice, water, and yeasts, unlike beer for example that contains strong-flavoring hops.
All these attributes make of Sake a delicate beverage with subtle flavors, one that goes well with food because it respects and marries it without adding too much contrast with a dish (see dedicated section further down).
The regionality of Sake
Furthermore, and this is very little-known outside of Japan (and beyond Sake specialists), there is a regionality or a typicity that varies depending on the origin of the Sake, much like there is in wine.
The regionality in Sake comes from three main factors that do vary depending on the provenance aka the origin of the product:
- The quality of the rice that is used. Sake rice is not the same as table rice, specific rice varieties have been selected according to criteria that makes them particularly suited to the production of Sake: the shape of the grain, their starch, protein and fat composition, etc. Like for every agricultural product, different varieties of rice grow under different climatic conditions (‘terroir’!). From North to South, Japan knows a broad variety of climates resulting in different types of rice being grown and used in Sake production in different areas, much like different grapes varieties are used in different wine-growing region.
Top 3 Sake Rice varieties and their regionality:
- Yamada Nishiki: often considered the finest sake rice yielding complex and fruity sakes. The variety is mainly grown in the provinces of Hyogo, Okayama and Fukuoka.
- Gohyakumangoku: mostly grown on the Eastern side of japan (the Sea of Japan), especially Niigata, but also Toyama, Fukushima, and Ishikawa.
- Liyama Nishiki: this is a cold-weather variety, therefore only grown the Northern part of the country such as Akita, Yamagata, Nagano, Miyagi, and Iwate.
- As developed further down below, the strain of yeast used during the brewing process plays a major role in the organoleptic characteristics of Sake. Every province in Japan has been selecting strains to enhance and develop further the typicity of their Sake, in relation with the regional style they are aiming for, the type of rice and their own constraints of production. These amplify the variation and the regionality of Sake across the provinces of Japan.
A striking illustration of the emphasis Japanese brewers put into the yeasts they use was given during the press trip with the visit of the Brewing Society of Japan. Located in Tokyo and founded in 1906, the institution selects and supplies strains of yeasts to many brewers all around Japan with a high level of scientific acuity.
- Water is the third factor affecting quality of Sake and therefore its regionality. Like everywhere on Earth, the quality of the water varies from province to province in Japan. Beer and whisky makers have long communicated to the general public about the importance and the ‘purity’ of their water. Because water, in the end, IS the main ingredient in all these beverages, the same applies to Sake.
As a striking example of the regionality in Sake, I was given to visit the stunning island of Shikoku in the Southern part of Japan, and the Provinces of Ehime and Kochi.
Kochi’s sake in particular, in a relatively isolated area between mountain and the Pacific ocean where the gastronomy is influenced by the abundant cold-water seafood, is typically light and dry, much more so than in the rest of western Japan.
Acclaimed Sake-producing provinces of Japan include, with varied Sake styles: Miyagi, Fukushima, Miyasaki, Nada, Akita, Nigata, and many more…
Some notable differences between Sake and wine nonetheless
So, Sake is definitely to be enjoyed like wine. It can be tasted and enjoyed on its own, but also (and most generally) paired with food.
There are a few differences as you’d expect though, being from a very different source of sugar (rice versus grapes):
- Sake is not very acidic, unlike wine. Sake does contain some acidity, generated during the brewing and the fermentation processes. But because rice contains virtually no acid, unlike grapes that are a very acidic fruit to start with, sakes contain about 0.1 to 0.2 grams of acidic per 100ml, compared to an average of 0.5 to 0.9 g/100ml in white wine. The result is that sake does provide the sourness and the same refreshing crisp feel as wine does, and it is important for pairing with food. But we’ll get back to this later on, further down below…
- Sake takes most of its aromas and flavors from the fermentation. Think about it, rice is not a very fragrant ingredient to start with, with delicate floral scents more than anything. This is especially true for the high-quality Sake’s whose rice varieties are selected to be elegantly and subtly scented rather than fragrant, specifically, for a finer Sake. The rice is also milled to various levels (see section below about the types of Sakes) removing the outer shell in rice and leaving only the core that’s composed mainly of neutrally-aromatic starch.
As a consequence, Sake ‘acquires’ aromas and flavors mainly through the fermentation process, with very little oxidation at that. As a contrast, wine gets aromas from the grapes themselves (primary aromas) as well as the fermentation (secondary aromas), and then some oxidation and other flavors of bouquet from oak and/or bottle ageing (tertiary).
Therefore, the typicity of each Sake comes more from its production process than its origin, even though its regionality as described above is impacting as well. Sake is a complex world, much like wine, but different. Rice can be transported easily from one province to another which can moderate its regional typicity.
The quality levels/Grades of Sake
There is an immense variety of Sake designations that comes with the related complex terminology. Much like in wine, this can feel obscure and difficult to comprehend for outsiders and non-specialists.
If you’re a beginner, and you are looking for the finest Sakes, those with (generally speaking) the finest expression and the most care put into their making, there are two main terms you should know about and remember:
- Ginjo: those are Sakes made from rice whose envelope has been milled at a rate of 40%. This means that the outside part of the rice grains have been milled away (40% of the grain is disregarded before brewing), removing most the protein and fat content of the rice. This milling leaves only the purest core of the grain mainly composed of starch, yielding finer Sake expressions. Given the high percentage of rice that is lost in the process, only the finest rice varieties are used for Ginjo Sakes, and brewers pay the most attention to detail in the brewing process too. Daiginjos are even finer Sakes, made from rice milled at 60+%.
- Junmai: those are Sakes whose alcohol content only find its origin in the direct fermentation of the rice, with no addition of external alcohol. Any Sake that is not Junmai has seen the addition of high-percentage alcohol, somewhat like fortification in wine. This is not a negative operation per se, as it helps extracting flavors. But Junmai Sakes tend to be the purest ones, the direct expression of the fermentation of the rice they were made from.
For Premium sakes then, look out for the categories as listed on the Infographics below:
Sake & Food, the Japanese Sake culture
In the end, Premium Sake is an extremely fine and complex beverage, with typicity depending on its origin, and individuality in each brewer’s expression.
A wonderful world to explore…
The Premiumization of Sake
Furthermore, much like wine, Sake is a beverage that has been developed over the ages to a high level of sophistication with the aim of being paired harmoniously with delicate foods.
Much like for wine in Europe, domestic Sake consumption has dropped dramatically in Japan since the 1980s, forcing producers to re-orient their production from mass-production of cheap beverage towards a finer expression only drunk on more special occasions. Much like in wine in countries such France, Italy, Spain or Argentina, there has been a Premiumization of Sake in Japan, with a focus on exports also amplifying further the demand for quality, story-telling and typicity.
Sake & Food Pairing
Let’s conclude saying that due to the finesse of the aromatic and flavor expression of Sake, and its low acidity, Sake is the ideal companion to the refined and elegant Japanese cuisine, but not only…
A Japanese Sake would easily be overwhelmed by the rich flavors of many Western cuisine dishes, not providing enough aromatics and refreshing acidity to counter strong meats, rich stews or smelly cheese for example.
Similarly, wine would easily overwhelm many delicate Japanese foods. Most reds and aromatic whites are certainly too pungent aromatically to be harmoniously paired with subtle Suchis, Sashimis, Miso, Tempuras, or even delicate Yakitoris. In fact, Japanese cuisine simply rarely demands the high level of acidity contained in wine for a successful pairing.
It is not in the Japanese culture to associate food with a high acid beverage. Like the food, Japanese beverages are more about restraint, purity and finesse of flavors.
Premium Sakes is to be enjoyed and appreciated on it own, or with subtle food dishes such as those featured in Japanese cuisine whose primary focus is to highlight the natural expression of the ingredients, rather than the cooking technique (which often there is none of).
That said, as Western cuisine and gastronomy evolves more and more towards finer preparations, only enhancing and highlighting the ingredients rather than transforming them, Premium Sake is sure to find and satisfy more and more fruitful uses on fine western restaurant tables (the Michelin-starred, fine gastronomy ones), perhaps explaining its increasing success around the world….
To learn more about Sake, visit the informative website of the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association.
Some useful resources about Kochi and Ehime, stunning provinces of Japan on the Shikoku island, worth visiting and exploring: