Although it’s often referred to as a rice wine, saké is actually brewed, and its production process is more similar to beer than wine. Fundamentally, saké consists of four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji (a mold that produces enzymes to trigger fermentation). To identify styles, it’s helpful to know some terms:
Junmai: Pure rice saké made with just rice, water, yeast and koji. Saké that’s not labeled junmai has a small amount of distilled alcohol added to the mash during fermentation.
Seimaibuai: Saké is classified by its rice milling rate, or seimaibuai, the percentage of the rice grain remaining after milling and polishing. Typically, the more the rice is milled, the more fruity and floral it becomes. The less the rice is milled, the more earthy and robust the saké is.
Honjozo: The most basic category of premium saké, with a milling rate of 70 percent or less. Always non-junmai, it’s typically refreshing and uncomplicated.
Ginjo: Premium saké with a milling rate of 60 percent or less. Can be junmai or non-junmai.
Daiginjo: The most premium saké classification, with a milling rate of 50 percent or less. Can be junmai or non-junmai.
Pairings: Beyond Sushi
Because it’s made out of rice, saké has lower acidity than wine and no tannins, which gives it food-pairing superpowers.
Saké can harmonize or tease out subtle characteristics of sweetness, fruitiness or minerality in food. Cheese, pasta, mild chicken and fish are no-brainers with almost any style.
Pair a delicate, fruity ginjo or daiginjo with foods that have subtle sweetness, fruit or floral elements. Good matches are a green salad, chicken or fish with a citrusy vinaigrette, delicate cheeses or even chocolate.
According to Miho Imada, president and brew master at Imada Shuzo in Hiroshima, her Fukucho Moon on the Water Junmai Ginjo brings out fruity notes in dark chocolate. In return, she says, chocolate imparts a creamy texture to the saké.
Saké can harmonize or tease out subtle characteristics of sweetness, fruitiness or minerality in food.
Pair a savory or mineral-intense junmai with briny seafood dishes like oysters, or funkier kimoto or yamahai with robustly flavored beef, fowl or fish dishes.
Dr. Shunichi Sato, president of Kaetsu Shuzo in Niigata, had an epiphany pairing his Kanbara Bride of the Fox Junmai with New England clam chowder. Dr. Sato says the saké enhances sweet, smoky bacon flavors as well as the brininess of clams. The silkiness of saké bolsters the luxurious texture of chowder.
Fruity, Floral and Aromatic
Ginjo and daiginjo saké (both junmai and not) are often perfumed, full of fresh peach, strawberry or melon flavors and delicately textured. For even more impact, try a nama, or unpasteurized saké.
Fukucho Junmai Ginjo Moon on the Water (Hiroshima) Vine Connections; $40/720 ml
Gekkeikan Horin Junmai Daiginjo (Kyoto) Shaw-Ross; $45
Narutotai Ginjo Nama Genshu (Tokushima) Japan Prestige Sake; $39
Crisp and Refreshing
Non-junmai styles are brisker in mouthfeel than junmai styles. Distilled alcohol added to the fermenting saké mash lifts aroma and lightens texture and taste. Regionally, saké from Niigata and Shizuoka are particularly known for crisp, lively styles.
Hakkaisan Ginjo (Niigata) Mutual Trading Corporation; $40
Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu (10,000 Ways) Honjozo (Yamagata) Joto Saké; $18
Gasanryu Kisaragi Daiginjo (Yamagata) JFC International Inc; $48
Complex and Savory
Kimoto or yamahai methods of fermentation allow for the development of ambient lactic acid bacteria, which yields earthier, funkier complexities and higher acidities than found in other saké.
Suehiro Junmai Yamahai (Fukushima) JFC International Inc; $27
Tengumai Yamahai Junmai (Ishikawa) New York Mutual Trading Co. Inc; $30
Tamagawa Red Label Yamahai Muroka Nama Genshu (Kyoto) World Sake Imports; $37
Rich and Silky
Junmai saké has a richer, silkier mouthfeel than non-junmai saké. With increased rice milling, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo styles become lighter and fruitier, but often maintain a delicate creaminess on the palate.
Tsurunoe Junmai (Fukushima) David Bowler Wine; $30
Azumaichi Junmai (Saga) Domaine Select Wine & Spirits and New York Mutual Trading Co. Inc; $35
Chiyonosono Shared Promise Junmai (Kumamoto) Vine Connections; $26/720 ml
Saké Out of the Box
For something different, try a sparkling saké, a cloudy nigori (loosely filtered) saké, aged koshu or fruit-macerated saké like umeshu (plum saké).
Daishichi Kimoto Umeshu (Fukushima) JFC International Inc; $60 Mizbasho Sparkling Pure (Gunma) Domaine Select Wine & Spirits; $80/360ml
Rihaku Dreamy Clouds Tokubetsu Junmai (Shimane) Vine Connections; $33/720 ml
Ichishima Koshu Ginjo (Niigata) Lauber Imports; $75