Mondiale - Exploration of Sake & Tasting

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hosted by Jane and Roger Tracy


Sake - Introduction to its Art Form  
By Vice-Chargée de Missions Jeanne Cahill  
On December 2, 2007 several dozen sake neophytes gathered at the home of Bailli Jane Tracy to be initiated into the mysteries of premium sake, or nihonshu.  Our guide to this adventure was Matthew McCammon, of Cream Wine Company, in conjunction with Vice-Echanson Mon Roldan.

Often thought of as Japanese wine, sake is produced by multiple fermentations of rice, a brewed product more akin to beer.  Sake is deceivingly complex, subtle rather than overt, with layered fragrances and flavors.

The quality of sake begins with the degree to which the rice is polished before fermentation; in premium and super-premium sakes, more than 30-50% of the rice is polished away.  As quality levels increase, production becomes more traditional and more labor intensive.  As with grape varieties, each type of rice contributes to the sake’s aroma and taste.  The finished sakes also vary depending on terroir, climate, purity of the water and the style of the brewer.

We tasted 8 premium and super-premium sakes in four flights, and one ‘regular’ sake as a baseline. We sampled representatives from the 3 levels of sake, Junmai (Tokubetsu), Junmai Ginjo, and the pinnacle of the art, Junmai Daiginjo.

The experience of tasting sakes and matching them to food was quite different from that of wine tasting and pairing.  The vocabulary is different:  the fragrance was often described as herbal, coconut, anise, squash, lime, mint, or lichee.  The flavors were complex, refined, balanced, nuanced, and subtle.

Each flight of two sakes was matched to several dishes, both Japanese and Western.  Our lavish feast included various sushi and sashimi (maguro, hamachi, ebi, sake, unagi, hirame (tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, salmon, eel, fluke)), several fanciful maki (rolled sushi) as well as wagyu beef tenderloin ‘sashimi’ spiced with chili sesame oil, spicy octopus salad, and sea weed salad.

The food & wine pairing generated much spirited conversation (excuse the pun);  it seemed to many that the sakes accompany food in a quite different way than wines do,  Though some pairings were more felicitous than others, not only did the sakes not ‘fight with’ or overpower any of the food, but neither did the food overpower the sakes.  We found the palate behaved in a more forgiving way with sake than with wine.

By the end of the afternoon, our tutor had successfully begun to demystify the subject of sake, leaving us all with an élan to take our new knowledge with us and experiment with both Western and Japanese foods.  It was truly an educational experience.  Vive Mondiale!