A beginner’s guide to saké

Image: Bob Campbell MW (Photo: )

I enjoyed a fascinating and very educating saké tasting hosted by Fumi Nakatani, restaurant manager of Masu at Sky City in Auckland with help from saké enthusiast Sam Harrop MW. Fumi is the first and only New Zealand based professional to be awarded an international qualification in Saké from the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

I visited a few saké breweries in Japan eight years ago (the photo at the head of this article was taken then and is of Mr Masuda at Tsudi-No-Katsura Saké Brewery).

I enjoy saké very much and have to say that the tasting with Fumi fuelled my passion for this wonderful drink. Most wine drinkers have tasted and enjoyed, or at least been fascinated by, saké. The barrier to embracing saké on a regular basis is the seemingly incomprehensible labels. How do you exercise judgement in ordering and drinking saké when you don’t know your Ginjo from your Junmai?

Here are a few tips that I hope will encourage you to add saké to your shopping list.

I should start by saying that Masu restaurant is a great starting point for anyone interested in learning more about saké. The food is sensational (we tasted a wide cross-section with the saké samples), the staff both knowledgeable and helpful and the saké list comprehensive. At Masu, they sell as much saké as they do red wine. That’s hardly surprising when you look at the list, which helpfully groups saké under the headings; “delicate, feminine, pure”, “floral, fruity, aromatic”, “rich, earthy, spicy, umami” and “unique, fun, alternative”.

You can order saké by the 750ml bottle or 180ml carafe. All are imported from Japan by Masu. They also have a list of saké that can be enjoyed warm, although they believe as I do that saké tastes best chilled. For NZD $35 you can buy a tasting flight of four saké (40ml each) handpicked by Fumi.

Probably the most important terms to remember are Ginjo and Daiginjo. Daiginjo means that at least 50% of the outer layer of the rice has been polished off. The outer layer is made up of fats, proteins and minerals, which can contribute to harsher flavours. Daiginjo saké tends to be lighter, more delicate and fruitier than Ginjo saké (60% or less of the original rice) or Honjozo saké (70% or less of the original rice). The larger the grain of rice (that is, the less it has been polished) the more flavoursome the saké tends to be with richer and more savoury characters.

Sweetness is shown by the nihonshu-do or saké meter value. It ranges from -5 (sweet) to +12 (very dry) with +3 to +5 being the normal range.

Other terms that might be helpful and sometimes appear on exported Saké are:

  • Tokubetsu, meaning “special”
  • Koshu “aged”
  • Honjozo “added alcohol”

Saké is a complicated beverage. Don’t try to figure it out yourself. Go to Masu. Ask the waiter for help. Enjoy.

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