Understanding sake has been on my to-do list for so long, it has fallen into a shadowy abyss somewhere between figuring out the workings of the Social Security Trust Fund and deciding for myself which Proust translation is the most accurate. Over the years, knowing sommeliers have poured me transparent, beguiling glassfuls of Japanese rice wine. Each time I fell in love. Each time I resolved to get to the bottom of what it was all about. And each time I was nearly done in by the sheer math. Japan has 1,500 or so sake breweries, some of which turn out as many as ten varieties. To get up to speed, all I'd need was a considerable thirst and at least two lifetimes, assuming I didn't waste precious hours boning up on my Japanese. Of course a passing familiarity with the language would be useful, since few sakes dedicate label space to English text (although this recently started changing). Then there's the confusing tendency of sake brand names to bear no relationship to the name of the brewery that bottles them.
But the minute I zeroed in on premium sakes—the ones that reward careful contemplation the way fine wines do—those astronomical numbers quickly tumbled down to earth. Four out of five bottles are plain, everyday table sake, a glass of which is meant to be tossed back in one gulp. The most traditional style—called junmai-shu, or pure rice sake (because it's made without adding extra alcohol)—accounts for just 10 percent of the country's total output. And an even smaller percentage makes up a category called ginjo-shu (ginjo for short; shu signifies sake), the most refined sake of all. Set apart by its greater elegance and winelike aromas, ginjo is to Japan what the premier crus are to Bordeaux.
My first ginjo was actually slipped in among French vintages on a tasting menu at Chanterelle in downtown Manhattan seven years ago. Handed the tricky assignment of finding a wine to complement a carpaccio of beef and black truffles, the sommelier, Roger Dagorn, landed upon sake. The pairing was so well conceived that I can still recall the flavor vividly, as if I'd had it for breakfast this morning. Like an old married couple, the carpaccio and the sake seemed to finish each other's sentences.
Dagorn's use of Japanese rice wine as a counterpoint to French cuisine seemed avant-garde at the time; since then many wine stewards have followed suit. The obvious partner for Asian and fusion cooking, sake is served at Nobu Matsuhisa's far-flung outposts (he even brews his own Nobu brand) and at Megu and Masa in New York. It's less expected and more exciting at such standard-bearers of modern, French-influenced American cuisine as Tru in Chicago and the French Laundry in Napa Valley. Diners who sample ginjo in a restaurant frequently want to experiment with a bottle at home, and increasingly wine shops are able to oblige. Between restaurants and retail sales, demand for sake in the United States has surged by almost 50 percent in the past six years. A large chunk of that growth can be attributed to the popularity of junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo (an even more refined subset of ginjo).
This is somewhat ironic considering that in its home country, sake has fallen out of fashion. A depressing number of sake breweries go out of business every year; the number remaining is just half what it was in the mid-fifties. Young Japanese consumers, it seems, prefer wine, beer, whiskey, or Korea's soju. Sake is an old man's drink, they say. Ginjo is the only kind of sake gaining favorable recognition there, and until the early eighties, it, too, barely had an audience—at home or abroad. It was little more than a curiosity, something brewers made to show off their skill.
Ginjo's extraordinary finesse is the direct result of the painstaking procedure involved in its brewing, known as ginjo-zukuri. If you took the method for making regular sake, then tripled or quadrupled the difficulty level of each step, you would end up with something close to ginjo-zukuri. For example, garden-variety sake is produced with table rice, while ginjo starts with a special rice whose translucent husk surrounds an unusually large opaque core of starch.
Timing is critical in ginjo-zukuri; some brewers sleep in close proximity to the fermentation vats should they need to take care of something in the middle of the night. The process of soaking the rice is so precise that it's often regulated with a stopwatch. In other ways, the technique is timeless, befitting its ancient history. For instance, rather than moving the rice around the brewery by air-powered hoses, some ginjo makers wrap the grains gently in cloth and carry them by hand. In extreme cases, as with the venerable brewery S. Imanishi's Harushika Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo, the sake is not pressed from the fermented rice but filters out drop by drop from hanging cotton bags. (Shizuku actually means droplets.)
All this fine-tuning makes ginjo the artisanal product it is. But the heart of ginjo—and its defining feature—is the degree to which the rice is polished. All rice is brown when it leaves the paddy and before the outer layer (a tenth of the grain) is rubbed off to reveal the white interior. To make sake, however, even more must be scrubbed away to rid the rice of fats and proteins that can interfere with fermentation—and generate a strong, nutty flavor. As the grain is polished (between two stones), the pure starches in its core are revealed. The rice used to make ordinary sake is polished until a fifth of its original mass is gone. The ginjo brewer removes twice as much, or more. The polishing is done slowly and carefully, lest the friction give off too much heat. (Ginjo is often prepared in winter, when cold weather slows the fermentation process to a gentle murmur.) In fact, every part of the process is done at a deliberate pace. To qualify as ginjo, a sake must be brewed from rice that is polished to 60 percent of its original weight. In other words, before fermentation the brewer must eliminate nearly half his raw material.
The starch at the core, once stripped bare, breaks down gorgeously, imparting the fruity and flowery aromas that distinguish ginjo. Sometimes the rice is polished further: When only 50 percent of the original grain remains, the sake enters an even more rarefied subclass of ginjo called daiginjo. That percentage is just a maximum. One of the newest and most interesting sake brands, Dassai, offers a daiginjo that is polished until 23 percent of the grain is left. The most highly milled sake in Japan, it is explosively fragrant, with a mouth-filling flavor of concentrated pears.
It's tempting to think that since the Dassai daiginjo is the most polished sake of all, it must be the top choice. This daiginjo is certainly one of the most delicious I've tasted. But it's important not to confuse levels of purity with absolute rankings of quality. If an artisanal brewery makes a ginjo and a daiginjo, both will be great sakes; the daiginjo may simply be leaner and more focused. The notion that the finest (and, it almost goes without saying, expensive) sakes are the best would be utterly foreign to many Japanese. If anything, older Japanese drinkers reportedly look askance at daiginjo, feeling it tries so hard to mimic wine that it ceases to be sake. There's also such a thing as being too refined: Some daiginjo sakes are so stripped of impurity that they've almost vanished. And there are occasions for which a great daiginjo would be clearly wrong—for instance, it would be steamrollered by a rich lamb stew or pork roast. The best approach is to let the drink's subtlety harmonize with quieter foods like fish or noodles.
When I'm in a sip-and-swirl mood, ginjo or daiginjo sakes are for me. I know I'll never taste them all. But each new one I encounter offers fresh proof that a Japanese brewer with talent and patience can coax a worldful of flavors out of a simple grain of rice.
Two great resources for sake are True Sake, 560 Hayes St., San Francisco, 415-355-9555, www.truesake.com, and Union Square Wines & Spirits, 33 Union Square West, New York, 212-675-8100, www.unionsquarewines.com.
The New Sake Etiquette
The earliest written record of sake dates back to about A.D. 300, so it's not surprising that a host of rituals and traditions have developed around drinking it. Most of them, however, don't make much sense when applied to ginjo. Heating such an elegant drink, for instance, would be an act of violence. Chill it instead, consulting label instructions or your own palate for the ideal temperature. While the Japanese traditionally sip sake from either a ceramic cup or a cedar box, the aromatics of ginjo will be more accessible if you serve it in a wineglass. Some people will tell you that sake should never be paired with sushi, as both are based on rice. If that logic were correct, then the Japanese would very rarely consume sake, since rice is part of nearly every meal (although in Japan, the rice is served at the end of the meal, so the sake is not being drunk simultaneously). But if you like sake with your sushi, by all means, go ahead.
DAISHICHI MINOWAMON JUNMAI DAIGINJO Though deeply traditional, the Daishichi brewery in the Fukushima Prefecture has developed an innovative rice-polishing technique that leads to such marvels as its ethereal honeydew-and-strawberry-scented Minowamon sake. 720-ml bottle, $80
DASSAI JUNMAI DAIGINJO A newer brand from a venerable brewery in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, Dassai is already getting lots of attention for its offerings, like this mouthwatering daiginjo with lush pear aromas. 720-ml bottle, $75
HOYO KURA NO HANA ("FAIR MAIDEN") JUNMAI DAIGINJO This product of the 344-year-old Uchigasaki brewery in Miyagi is made from a new strain of rice. The taste is gentle and delicate but complete. 500-ml bottle, $35
KAMOIZUMI JUNMAI DAIGINJO In a startling departure from the fruit-and-flower aromas of most daiginjos, Kamoizumi mines an earthier vein of mushrooms, pine forests, and Parmesan cheese. 500-ml bottle, $35
MASUMI SANKA JUNMAI DAIGINJO Miyasaka Brewing Company, in Nagano, is famous throughout Japan for its discovery of the yeast that became the sake industry's favorite. Sanka is a premium sake with charming fresh plum and pear flavors and an aristocratic focus. 720-ml bottle, $80
Dining Out on Rice Wine
CLIO RESTAURANT When Clio's lounge was converted into Uni, a sashimi bar, two-and-a-half years ago, the then-sommelier began beefing up the sake selection. Now Clio is bringing the experiment to its main dining room, marrying the drink with chef Ken Oringer's forward-thinking cuisine. Dinner, $130. At 370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston; 617-536-7200; www.cliorestaurant.com.
GRASSHOPPER A convivial place in the east San Francisco Bay area serving small dishes from all around Asia, Grasshopper is known for its commitment to spreading the joys of sake. Dinner, $50. At 6317 College Ave., Oakland; 510-595-3557; www.grasshoppersake.com.
JEWEL BAKO Co-owner Jack Lamb is on hand at this recently expanded restaurant to share his favorite sushi and sake pairings. He carries more than 40 smaller Japanese brands of sake, all of which are served in his eclectic collection of thin-lipped sake glasses. Dinner, $170. At 239 E. 5th St., New York; 212-979-1012.
OZUMO RESTAURANT An American baseball player-cum-investment banker who became entranced by sake during a stint in the Asian leagues returned home to open this sophisticated Japanese-inspired restaurant with views of the San Francisco Bay. The list of 40 or so bottles—and 15 more by the glass—has no rival in the city. Dinner, $90. At 161 Steuart St., San Francisco; 415-882-1333; www.ozumo.com.
SAKAGURA This is a great secret to know. Walk through the lobby of a faceless office building in Midtown Manhattan, descend the steps to the basement, and emerge into a sake wonderland. With upwards of 200 by-the-glass selections (and traditional Japanese meals), Sakagura is the premier classroom for serious sake students. Dinner, $100. At 211 E. 43rd St., New York; 212-953-7253; www.sakagura.com.
SUSHI SAMBA RIO Like its sister restaurants in New York and Miami, Chicago's Sushi Samba Rio—a casual, lively spot with an idiosyncratic vision of Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian fusion—sells more sake than wine. The sommelier, Paul Tanguay, has made sake one of his specialties, and the restaurant now gives monthly tasting classes. Dinner, $70. At 504 N. Wells St.; 312-595-2300; www.sushisamba.com.
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