Sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo on Sake

Sake in Japan is magical. 

Once, in winter, in a small brewery in Takayama heady with the sweet fragrance of rice, we tasted sake, freshly bottled. It was clean and pure, evocative of spring water or freshly melted snow. 

Depending on the rice, brewer and region, sake can be mellow or crisp, subtle or strong, refined or bold. There are nuances too, from fine, delicately-sweet varieties to notes of caramel (when warmed), and full-bodied styles with a rich mouthfeel. 

We are not sake elitists, so at super casual spots - say an izakaya, yakitori-ya or kushikatsu joint - we are partial to nama biru (beer), frothy and fresh, or umeshu on the rocks (my favourite being the Yamazaki Distillery Reserve Suntory Casked Umeshu, matured in toasted whisky casks). Take the dining environment up a notch however, and our attention shifts to sake, perhaps a lightly sweet sparkling sake* to start, or one of their unpasturized namazake or nigori sake varieties. 

[*Sparkling sake probably has a reputation in Australia for being awfully sweet, thanks to the infamous  varieties in deep blue and pink-hued bottles. It really isn't. In Japan, it's light and zingy and fresh, with a profile similar to champagne].

But this post isn't about what we drink. Raffaele Mastrovincenzo, our friend and 2015 Australian Gourmet Traveller Sommelier of the Year, is incredibly knowledgeable in the areas of both sake and wine - having earned the award for his work at Kappo. We asked him a few questions about sake, how it compares to wine, where to start, and most importantly what to pair it with:

Sake

What are some of the misconceptions around sake?

For me, it would be the statement that sake is a rice wine. I believe the most common similitude is beer or whisky. 

How would you compare sake to wine in terms of depth and variety? 

There is definitely a great depth and complexity to sake that is similar to wine. The difference is that wine is - 90% of the time - a state vintage, whereas sake is not. Sake also has a very similar acidity to wine, bringing freshness and tension to the cuvée. The fruit and flavour profile of sake also comes through in a way similar to wine, with lots of similitudes in their organoleptic properties. 

That said, minerality is always present in sake, especially when it is made in a slow fermentation style such as Yamahai or Kimoto. These two fermentation techniques give an oxidation to the sake which resembles perceptions of saltiness and an umami character. 

What sake would you recommend as an accompaniment to the following Japanese dishes?

Raw + sashimiA Junmai Ginjo sake, mainly with Yamadanishiki rice. This always has a lot of nice acidity, beautiful tension and an electric palate, which cuts through the oilier fishes such as tuna, kingfish & salmon.

Yakitori: A Junmai nama Genshu with Omachi rice. The caramelisation of the meat from the grill needs this style of un-pasturised and un-diluted sake, which gives richness and structure on the palate.

Wagyu + red meat: For red meat, I always like the kimoto style of sake, which is an ancient, slow fermentation technique. No lactic acid bacteria is added to the moromi (chotto note: a mash made of rice, koji and water), and the kurabito (name for people working in sake breweries) have to constantly stir the rice during the fermentation process. This is a technique similar to bâttonage in wine making, which enriches the sake with tertiary nuances including earthy, salty elements and lots of umami.

What sake would you recommend to someone new to the beverage?

A Junmai Ginjo sake is very easy to drink, with good umami and versatility to many dishes.

While sake is traditionally associated with Japanese food, restaurants in Japan also pair wine with their dishes. What wines would you recommend with Japanese cuisine?

In Japan there is a great understanding of wine. They are quite the connoisseurs in fact, with Japan getting the biggest allocations of some of the most rare wines in the world. On my last trip, I was at a wine bar called La Pioche, and I had a Japanese steak paired with a merlot blend from Yamanashi Prefecture by Beau Paysages. It was a cuvée called Tsugane la Montagne and it was exceptionally good.

From my experience working at Kappo and my trips to Japan, I've come to the conclusion that the Japanese don't like tannins and strong wines; they prefer low alcohol, "glou glou" style natural and elegant wines, and wines with finesse. For me, if a strong culture like theirs likes a certain style of wine, it is because it is in line with their food. My recommended wines for Japanese cuisine are therefore wines such as:

  • Tom Shobbrook Didi Giallo "Sauvignon Blanc", Barossa Valley, AU
  • Pierre Overnoy "Chardonnay" Ouillé, Jura, FR
  • Emidio Pepe "Trebbiano D'Abruzzo", Italy
  • Manon Farm Rosato, Adelaide Hills, SA
  • Red Burgundy from producer Henri Naudin
  • Takahiko Soga Nana Tsumori "Pinot Noir", Hokkaido, JP

What is your most memorable sake experience?

When I visited Tedara Honke (brewery) in Chiba prefecture in Japan.

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Raffaele can be found @pitbeat on Instagram.