Saturday, January 16, 2010

Japan: Sake or Koshu wine?

Picture: President Obama greeting the Japanese Emperor

I have visited Japan a couple of times during my professional career at the International Monetary Fund. Whenever in Japan, I have tried to stay away from either locally produced or imported wine and I have thrown myself into the fascinating world of Sake.

On my next trip, however, I will definitely drink wine - locally produced wine. Previously known for poor-quality plonk, the Japan's winemakers are now using 100% domestically grown grapes to produce fine, sushi-friendly wine for the world. Less than a decade ago, the mere mention of Japan would elicit puzzled looks, if not snorts of derision, from the global wine cognoscenti. But wine snobs are being forced to think again. Though it lacks the heritage of the great winemaking countries of Europe, Japan is hoping to emulate New Zealand and quickly prove its enological credentials. That effort is centered on Yamanashi prefecture, where grape growing began 1,000 years ago, eventually spawning a modest wine industry in the second half of the 19th century. The central region, where 90 wineries operate in the shadow of Mount Fuji, is now producing drinkable wines from chardonnay and other European grapes. But it is the Koshu grape, an indigenous variety that found its way to Japan via central Asia and China more than a millennium ago, to which connoisseurs have turned for inspiration. Read more about it here.

Back to Sake. And Randy Caparoso's Sake Lessons, which he published on January 2 and 5, 2010. Generally, I appreciate very much Randy Caparoso's always very thoughtful articles on wine and food issues. This one on Sake is in particular noteworthy.

Randy Caparoso
January 2 and 5, 2010
Denver Wine Examiner

Randy Caparoso is an award winning Denver-based wine journalist and restaurant wine consultant. Believing that wine is a food like a rose is a rose, he writes about the best and latest wines for the foods we love to eat most. You can reach him directly at

In the late nineties it was Grif Frost, the founding partner of SakéOne in Oregon (now retired, and living the life in Hilo, Hawai`i), who first informed me that everything I knew previously about saké was wrong. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.

First thing I learned from Frost: only poorly made, cheap sakés are served warmed; and the finest sakés (called hiyazake or reishu) are best served slightly chilled, since the pure, delicate nuances of chilled sakés are destroyed by heat. You would no more heat up a bottle of high quality saké than you would an ultra-premium chardonnay.

Second thing I learned from Frost: saké may be made from rice, but it is much closer to fine wine than, say, beer in body, flavor, intensity and complexity. This was driven home the first time I stood over an opened, fermenting vat of ultra-premium saké, breathing in the intoxicating aromas: for all the world, resembling a gigantic bouquet of fresh, sweet honeydew, pineapple, passion fruit, jasmine, sweetened cream, and entire pods of vanilla bean. All that, very real, and made purely from rice!

Which brings us to the question: is saké a "wine?" Well, yes and no. Yes, from the perspective that, like wine, its alcohol level is the result of the conversion of sugars to alcohol by the action of yeast. Wine, of course, is fermented from natural grape sugars; whereas saké is fermented from finely polished (to as much as 50 percent less than the original hull size) steamed rice which has had its starchy core converted into sugars through a painstaking process called koji making, done largely by hand in special, warm, steamy, wood paneled rooms.

For whatever reason, a saké-making facility is called kura in Japanese, and is usually referred to as a saké brewery. Seeing little in common with breweries, however, Frost made up his own translation for kura, calling it "sakery." Why? Because unlike beer which usually finishes at 3% to 6% alcohol, saké naturally finishes at around 14% to 17% -- closer to the level of traditional wine (10%-14% alcohol), but obviously a little bit sturdier. Of course, if you ask the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, you'll find that for taxation purposes saké is classified as a wine. And for once, they may be right.

Picture: Imperial Palace Tokyo

Which brings us to the third thing I learned from Frost: saké tastes best in stemmed, tulip shaped wine glasses (optimal size: 9-12 oz.), which allows you to swirl, sip and enjoy those delicate qualities of honeydew, tropical flowers, minerals generated by its “multiple parallel” fermentations. In other words, forget tradition: these complexities are totally lost when saké is served in those square boxes or squat cups you are usually given in Japanese restaurants and bars.

Is there any stronger an argument that saké is indeed a “fine wine?” Well, how about the fact that Reidel has already designed a wine glass specifically for saké called the Daiginjo Tasting Glass (photo on left), bearing a close resemblance to Reidel's French Chablis glass? Not coincidentally, nuances of mineral and terroir are just as key to appreciating authentic Chablis as they are in fine chilled sakés.

In fact, soon after meeting Frost I was introduced to Haruo Matsuzaki, a professional saké judge from Japan, famed for his ability to identify, in blind tastings, as many as 1,635 different sakés on the basis of regional styles and terroir related distinctions. And yes, I did get to judge sakés in a formal setting once with Matsuzaki san (along with John Gauntner, an American born saké journalist living in Tokyo), and it was the mind blowing experience that I expected.

Now, to the fourth significant thing I learned from Frost: highest quality saké is also the purest alcoholic beverage in the world. It contain no sulfites, it is gluten free, and better yet, it is virtually "hangover free" since hangovers are largely caused by impurities in alcoholic beverages that are removed during the milling process of sake production. There is an old saying, according to Frost, that “saké makes a man sound as intelligent to others as he does to himself.” He also adds another Japanese saying, that "saké starts out as a friend but can end as an enemy." Then again, having survived many nights of good wine, saké and conversation, I already knew that.

Which brings us to the fifth, most surprising, and perhaps most significant thing I learned from Frost about saké: the fact that in Japan saké is not considered the ideal beverage for rice or sushi, as popularly assumed. To the Japanese, this is almost like drinking wine with grapes. While the Japanese eat sushi like snack food, before or after a “meal” with tea or beer, they do like to enjoy saké with sashimi.

Frost suggests planning saké meals around fuller bodied foods like pickled vegetables, pork, chicken, shellfish, and fish (grilled, steamed or as sashimi), and the heartier, more rustic types of dishes found in country style Japanese restaurants. But what if you wish to start with sushi? Then Frost recommends beginning with a good beer; and afterwards, once the appetite is whetted, moving on to vegetable, fish or meat courses with the saké.

The simplest way to approach saké's ideal food matches is by thinking of it as you would any other wine, but specifically as a “wine of the East” rather than the West. Thus, it makes sense to put it into in the context of foods influenced by Japanese and most Asian culinary traditions: particularly styles of fusion often described as Pacific Rim, East-West or pan-Asian.

But when taking it out of traditional contexts, saké does require a bit of mindfulness as to its unique nature. Some basic principles accumulated as a result of our menu trials:

• Since they are delicately scented and always served well chilled, all the new style sakés should be thought of as you would dry to off-dry white wines. Therefore, like white wines, they go very well with white meats (fish, shellfish, pork, chicken, etc.), with sauces or condiments appropriate for white meats.
• Since they are made from rice, not grapes, the chilled sakés have only about the third of the acidity of white wine. Therefore, the use of vinegars and vinaigrettes should be moderated so as not to make the saké taste flat or dull. However, you should not be afraid to use soft rice wine vinegars, or round, winy balsamic and Sherry vinegars, or vinaigrettes rounded out by palm sugar, seasonings, stocks, mirin, and fruit or herb/vegetable infusions to balance the mildly acidic qualities (relative to the whole or specific gravity) of typical styles of chilled saké.
• Since the finest, most polished sakés (bottled as ginjo or daiginjo) are made purely from rice, water, yeasts and the koji enzymes, they contain no bitter tannins or phenolics like, say, red wines or oaky chardonnays. Therefore, you cannot expect them to shine with fatty or chunky cuts of red meats.
• Despite the subtlety of their flavor delineations, typical chilled sakés are fairly full in alcohol (15% to 17%), and so they have good body and presence on the palate (in other words, not wimpy wines). Therefore, thinly sliced, lower fat meats balanced by vegetables, seasonings, and varying textures and sauces are very appropriate.

• Since fine saké is in primarily associated with Japanese traditions, it makes perfect sense to incorporate Japanese ingredients, sauces, and cooking techniques into fusion style cooking meant for saké. The reason for this is that much of Japanese cooking (the use of dashi, sea vegetables, root vegetables, miso, shiitake, wasabi, sesame, etc.) is quite earthy, making it very compatible with the distinctively earthy, minerally or stony qualities of natural sakés.
• Since the taste of ultra-premium saké entails a very subtle, harmonious balance of taste elements (as opposed to the more obvious acids, tannins and fruit sugars of table wines), a good rule of thumb is to avoid extremes of flavor when cooking for it. Think of it as similar to everyday, steamed white rice. While plainer in flavor than, say, garlicky noodles, cheesy polenta or buttery potatoes, it is that same plainness that makes steamed white rice very conducive to intensely flavorful, Asian influenced dishes. The quiet, understated qualities of chilled saké harmonize with foods in very much the same way that plain white rice harmonizes with many dishes.

Picture: Sunset at Kyomizu Temple

• Although many Japanese avoid eating plain rice or sushi with saké, this does not keep saké from being an easy match with starches of all sorts, including all the variations of pasta, beans, tofu, wild rice, Asian noodles (rice, bean thread, buckwheat, etc.), rice paper, potatoes, polenta, and even spätzle, crèpes, dumplings and couscous (including Israeli couscous). The appropriate method of cooking with these starches is to apply a restrained use of oils, butters, creams and reductions that echo the round (rather than sharp), subtle taste and silky, creamy textures of chilled saké, while maintaining a contrast and/or balance with each element in the dish.
• Finally, because of saké’s significant natural amino acid content, you can identify foodstuffs that act as flavor “bridges” for saké by thinking of the originally Japanese concept of umami, the often overlooked “fifth taste”: the sensation perceived by the taste buds (on top of sweet, sour, salty and bitter sensations) as essentially a “deliciousness” resulting from interactions with foods high in amino acid content, whether occurring naturally in ingredients or activated through cooking processes. MSG, for instance, is essentially a manufactured, umami driven flavor booster; but the sensation of umami is naturally found in, say, vine ripened tomatoes, well aged cheeses (like Parmigiano, extra-aged Goudas, and blues), and especially fungus (chanterelles, porcini, shiitakes, the rare matsutake from Japan, and especially truffles or in truffle oil). Seaweeds of all sorts are high in umami; and seasonings such as schichimi and Chinese five-spice help facilitate it. Complex, slowly evolved stocks based upon chicken, veal and shellfish, as well as the reductive aspects of braising, pot a feu, dashi, nages, and natural essences all achieve certain degrees of umami.
• If anything, the important thing to remember is that since the highest quality sakés are perceived by the palate as subtle, harmonious, and ultimately delicious, judicious use of ingredients rich in umami “deliciousness” can lead to easy saké/food matches.


Saké Meter Value (Determining Sweetness/Dryness)
Since when cooking for sakés, level of dryness or sweetness is the biggest consideration, let’s begin with a brief explanation of what is called Saké Meter Value, often found indicated on the labels of commercial sake:

• The level of sweetness or dryness in a given saké is called Nihonshu-do, or Saké Meter Value (i.e. SMV). But Saké Meter Value is not actually a measurement of residual sugar, but rather a measurement of the specific gravity of saké, which normally ranges from -10 to +10.
• Generally speaking, the lower the level of specific gravity (below 0), the sweeter the saké. 0 SMV is pretty much the middle ground for sakés, tasting somewhere between slightly sweet and fairly dry. Sweeter sakés generally measure below -5, and the driest sakés measure somewhere between +4 and +10 SMV.

That said, here are some guidelines to preparing or selecting foods for fine chilled saké:

Foods for Very Dry Saké (SMV: +4 or more)
• Smoked or grilled white meats and seafoods (smoked salmon, wood oven roasted oysters, wood grilled chicken, pork, rabbit, etc.) that match the stony, flinty dryness of dry saké.

Picture: Geishas

• White fish with either flaky, mild flavors (mahimahi, snapper, ono, etc.); or slightly oily fish (cod, sea bass, monkfish, tuna, salmon, hamachi, etc.) to match the fluid, silken texture of dry sakés.
• Fleshy shellfish (scallops, oysters, abalone, lobster, etc.).
• Raw foods, from tataki and tartare to sashimi and oysters.
• Fish in fragrant broths, steamed, cooked in hotpots, nages, green (ochazuke) or black teas, or finished with infused oils.
• Steamed Japanese custards (chawan mushi).
• Ankimo (monkfish liver) in mild ponzus.
• Restrained use of creams, butters and beurre blancs, coconut milk, oils (sesame, olive, grapeseed, etc.), “dynamites” (mildly spiced Japanese style aioli), Parmigiano (in risotto), and avocado -- all to match the silky saké textures.
• To match the daiginjo sakés’ stony, earthy aspects, use of all varieties of sea vegetables, seasonings and minerally/saline seafoods (caviars, bonito flakes, eel, clam, sea urchin or uni, etc.).
• Earthy vegetables such as mushrooms (fresh or dried), truffles (and truffle oil), root vegetables (daikon and other radishes, horseradish, gobo, fennel, burdock, lotus root, etc.), mustards, toasted sesame seeds, and Chinese greens (choy sum, bok choy, ong choy, etc.).
• Fragrant, leafy green herbs such as parsley, mitsuba, mints, dill, sweet basil, chiso, chervil, tarragon and Mexican mint marigold.
• Crisp "fruity" vegetables such as snow peas, cucumber, asparagus, bean sprouts, edamame, and fennel.

Foods for Medium Sweet Saké (SMV: between +4 and -5)
• Rich, oily, even salty fish -- such as sashimi grade tuna and hamachi, mackerel, salt cod (brandade), cuttlefish, herring, eel, anchovy and sardines -- that easily balance the stony, whispery sweet qualities of the off-dry sakés.

• “Sweet” varieties of shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, etc.), white fish, pork, and other white meats with mildly sweet glazes (yakitori, teriyaki, misoyaki, etc.).
• Crispy fried foods (tempura, potstickers, spring rolls, lumpia, etc.).
• Caviars of all sorts (sturgeon, salmon, flying fish, etc.)
• Restrained use of sweet/hot seasonings (shichimi togarashi, Chinese five-spice, jerk, Cajun spices, etc.) or mildly sweet/sour/spicy barbecue sauces (Asian or American variations).
• Mildly acidic broths, oils, vinaigrettes and aiolis made with rice vinegar, mirin, yuzu, ponzu, etc.
• Wok charred Chinese greens and sweet peppers with oyster or fish sauces.
• Mildly hot fruit/vegetable relishes (Asian or Mexican salsas), dipping sauces (such as Thai) and mustards.
• Earthy, salty and/or sweet toned Japanese ingredients (ginger, kabayaki, unagi, gobo, daikon, green tea, soba, sesame, umeboshi, nori, furikake, etc.).
• Earthy seasonings and marinades such as moles, or using achiote, cumin, miso or sesame pastes, etc.
• Fresh or dried seaweeds.
• Fragrant types of rice (such as jasmine and basmati), and fragrant preparations of rice (arroz, paella, risotto, pilaf, etc.).
• Strongly scented herbs and spices (such as star anise, kaffir, cilantro, Vietnamese coriander, Thai or licorice basils, saffron, cumin, paprika, allspice and achiote).
• Pungent alliums (sweet onions, scallions, garlic, shallots, chives and leeks).
• The entire range of taste sensations associated with Asian or Pacific Rim foods; including sweet (tropical fruit infusions, palm sugared sauces, hoisin, chutneys, Chinese or Japanese bean pastes, etc.), sour (use of vinegars, citrus juices, lemon grass, yogurt, tamarind pastes, green mango and green papaya), salty (soy, rock salt, fish sauces, caviars), spicy (fresh, dried and crushed chilies, Asian chili pastes, rayu and hot sesame oils, curry pastes and powders, Chinese red rice vinegar), and even bitter tastes (peppercorns, spice sprouts, watercress, horseradishes, mustard, coriander and anise seeds, and mesclun greens such as arugula, mizuna, dandelion, mustard greens, cress, nasturtium).

Foods for Sweet Nigori (Cloudy/Rough Filtered) Style Saké (SMV: -6 or Less)
• Fuller white meats, game birds, and some offal (chicken, pork, duck, squab, sweetbreads, tripe, tendon, etc.), especially variations of sweet glazes.
• Sweet/sour/spicy appetizers that incorporate the earthy flavors (such as Thai and Japanese dipping sauces) that saké loves.

Picture: Tsukiji Fish market in Tokyo

• Hotter seasonings (from Thai and Chinese chili pastes to Cajun, Indian and Jamaican spices).
• Coconut laced curries.
• Sweet/spicy/salty soy based barbecued meats and ribs (sticky marinades, dry rubs, teriyaki and kalbi).
• Satays with earthy, sweet, sour, salty and/or spicy marinades and dipping sauces.
• Fruit infused natural reductions.
• Ankimo (monkfish liver) and foie gras seared with plum sauce or other fruit reductions.
• European style (i.e. barely sweet) desserts with fresh fruit (especially pineapple, mango, banana, papaya, strawberry, lychee, longan, mangosteen and durian), coconut pudding (Hawaiian haupia), bittersweet chocolate (black or white), tapioca and rice puddings, custards, flan, panna cotta, anglaise, azuki beans, and scented flavors (vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon grass, cardamom, citrus rinds, pistachios or almonds) -- the only rules of thumb being “nothing-too-sweet” (like syrupy coulis), and avoidance of predominantly acidic/citrusy sensations (since nigori style saké does not tend to be as sweet or acidic as traditional dessert wines, like late harvest rieslings).

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