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All About Sake, the Japanese Rice Wine

All About Sake, the Japanese Rice Wine

Discover the ancient history of sake, traditional drink from the Far East, made from rice. Paolo Basso, best European sommelier, drives you to sake tasting

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Waza-mizu-kome: to fully grasp the essence of sake, to immerse yourself in its history and rituals, you need to begin with this formula, used by experts to define the basic elements of this prestigious beverage. Waza, or rather, the competence, the hand of man; mizu, the quality of the water, andkome, the quality of the rice and its degree of luster.

The origins of “rice wine” are mysterious. Whether it comes from China and Japan, the century before the birth of Christ, one thing is clear: the origin of sake is ancient and closely tied to the cultivation of rice and the feminine world. Like the South American chica or the caium of the Native Americans, at one time sake was “chewed” to help along the fermentation process, as it often happened with other grain-based alcoholic beverages. This is why it was called kamosu, from the verb kamu, which means to chew or to bite.

The main characters of this story are women, as this job was reserved for the village priestess or virgin and her presence in Shinto religious rituals confirms the sacred role that sake played.

To obtain a good sake, you can select from over fifty varieties of rice. And as with wine, different growing regions produce different results. Some of the most prestigious rice regions are Yamada-nishiki (Hyogo Province), l’Omachi (Okayama and Hiroshima Province), the Gohyakuman-goku (Niigata Province), and Miyama-nishiki (Nagano Province).

And today, sake has arrived from the East onto menus around the world as an accompaniment to fish and meat. We’ve asked Paolo Basso, the European Sommelier Champion 2010, to guide us through this realm of unusual pairing and tastes worth discovering.

How can you recognize a good quality sake, what should it look, smell and taste like?
The colour can vary from a pale, straw yellow to a more intense golden yellow. As for aroma, they can range from fruity to more complex, and even arrive at more spicy notes along with the fruity ones. The taste of a good sake comes from the balance of alcohol, acidity, taste and persistence. The savoury note is very important, which is an element that isn’t often considered when tasting wine: it’s this exact intensity of flavour, which shouldn’t be confused with the potency of the alcohol, which is the secret of the quality.

Speaking of which: are there really different alcohol gradations in sake? 
Yes, even if in general, the variation is slight: between 15° and 17°, although they can be higher. 
What other elemento influente the flavour? 
The degree to which the rice is refined. The more refined the rice, the higher-quality product. Just like with wine, when more precious grapes create a better wine. Sake produced with more refined rice will be “purer” and more expressive and of higher quality.

In Japan, sake is enjoyed with meals: what is the role of this beverage in the culture of Japanese cuisine? And what is the role of wine? 
Sake is the traditional Japanese drink, and as such, is present on the table in daily eating habits just like wine is in our culture. Apart from sake, the Japanese are great consumers of beer, but over the recent years wine is becoming more common, and its popularity comes at the expense of sake. The Japanese are much more open with regards to wine than Westerners are with regards to sake.

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