The Sakamai and the Sommelier
Updated: May 15
I have brewed beer for 25 years. During this period, only three people (brewers) asked me what kinds of barley and yeast I was using. Now, despite all the excellent beers available on the market and despite all these curious consumers, still most of time, they are shelved by colour (white, amber, blonde, red, brown or black), and never by variety of barley used.
Some would say that at the SAQ, wines are classified more by colour of the taste tags than by grape variety. Nevertheless, the sommeliers present and promote their suggestions by cépage, among other characteristics.
By reading the grape variety on the label of a bottle of wine, you can already anticipate certain flavours.
The way of carrying out the operations during the vinification, the yeast and the wood of the barrels certainly influence the final result, but it is undeniable that the fruit leaves its mark; Chardonnay gives us hope for pear, lemon, acacia, hazelnut, leather, etc. while the Gamay promises raspberry, blackcurrant and peony.
Although it has more in common with beer than with wine, saké is sometimes called “rice wine” and “Vin de riz” in French.
Reading the variety of the Sakamai (Saké rice) on the label of a saké bottle, can we forefeel flavours like with the cépages? Does the cultivar of Sakamai announce the taste of saké?
Even though a saké’s flavour is influenced by its brewing style, the polishing rate of the rice, the strain of yeast used—all of which are ultimately decided by the Toji, the variety of rice certainly affects the final product. But not as directly as a grape permeates the wine.
So why this particular focus on cultivars in the case of saké?
Saké is only a tiny portion of all that is drunk as alcohol in the world. Even in Japan, since the sixties, its consumption has declined, precisely to the detriment of that of wine.
Wanting to stop giving up domestic market share and, above all, conquer overseas, saké brewers are making an effort to attract wine consumers.
From this effort, in addition to the nickname “rice wine,” products such as sparkling, sparkling and even rosé sakés were born; vintage or cask-aged sakés as well as bottles and labels that sometimes resemble those of wine.
Even Ginjo and Daiginjo, whose consumption is rather marginal in Japan, are highlighted in international competitions because they, with their fruity and floral aromas, are enough to seduce sommeliers and wine drinkers. Likewise, the Yamahai and Mizumoto processes imbue saké with an acidity that appeals more to Western palates than to Japanese.
The saké makers have rightly concluded that sommeliers (WSET and others) are the best ambassadors of saké, the most credible professionals, to convince a guest that there is no wine better than saké to pair Japanese dishes, of course, raw oysters and grilled fish, but also spinach soufflé, asparagus quiche, anchovy pizza or cheese platters.
Our sommeliers, by their training, might believe that the cultivar is important. And you will tell me that having eaten little or no rice, they are incapable of recognizing the subtle differences in taste between the various cultivars. I will tell you that it is the same with the grape varieties. How many of them have eaten Gamay, Sangiovese or Brunello straight from the vine? This does not prevent them from educating us about the character of the different wines and categorizing them more subtly than by tags colour.
This is why the Toji provide these professionals with the names of the cultivars, so that they can do as with wine, teach us, for each saké, where it comes from, the sakamai from which it is made, and tell us a story that evokes flavours and makes us salivate.