Andrew Jefford raises a question or two about the wine world’s latest infatuation - with sake...

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Sake: Wine’s Japanese fling

What do we call it? Acceptance? Absorption? Adoption? Whatever word you prefer, the process is well under way: sake now seems to belong on wine lists and in wine magazines. Wine lovers revealing ignorance of or disaffection for this newly fashionable drink court opprobrium.

This year’s most commented-on (and thus perhaps influential) Wine Advocate review did not cover Bordeaux 2015 or Napa 2014, but was a report written about sake by Chinese contributor Liwen (Martin) Hao, a journalist whom I have had the pleasure of tasting wine with at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards in the past.

A poorly drafted and imperfectly edited Financial Times article contrived to suggest the notes were Parker’s own, which may or may not have triggered the resulting sales stampede; and as W.Blake Grey has revealed in a fascinating post on his website, all of the sakes reviewed in the Advocate were offered for sale, at sometimes inflated prices, on the day the report appeared by a newly established Tokyo company via a website which has subsequently and mysteriously disappeared. Those posting to Blake Grey’s site suggest that this fugitive company had connections with one which has organised Wine Advocate events in Japan.

Around a month after the Liwen Hao report, Jancis Robinson MW covered sake for the Financial Times and her own website, as she had done in 2008. (Jancis, not in general a fan of heady wine, was perhaps surprisingly “uplifted by the subtle variations in these cool, ineffably pure, limpid ferments, averaging about 16 per cent alcohol”.) The Wine and Spirit Education Trust teaches sake courses; the International Wine Challenge judges sake. Decanter, too, is preparing to expand its coverage and scrutiny of sake.

All of this is very good news for sake producers, since in Japan, the drink is far from fashionable, and has been tanking ever since 1975; it now has just 6.8% of Japan’s alcoholic beverage market, having lost around two-thirds of its market share since the 1975 peak. Japanese fashionistas prefer wine.

My own road-to-Damascus moment with sake has yet to come, but I am ardently in favour of the wine world’s celebration and acceptance of Japan’s ancient, complex and culturally rich national beverage. Indeed I remember attempting to research sake for London’s The Evening Standard in the 1980s, writing to a number of sake producers in Japan and trying to arrange a visit there, and meeting at that stage with a total lack of interest in sake exports to the UK. Any reader who already has the sake bug, by the way, should try to get hold of the beautiful and thorough Sake: The History, Stories and Craft of Japan’s Artisanal Breweries by Elliot Faber and Hayato Hishinuma, published by Gatehouse in Singapore: a fine tribute to this culture.

But wine’s Japanese fling leaves me with just one question: what about beer?

Drinks, whether alcoholic or not, are generally made from fruits, grains or leaves. Tea, for example, is made from leaves; coffee from fruits.

Among alcoholic drinks, wine, cider and brandy are made from fruits (grapes and apples), while sake and whisky are made from grains (rice and barley, wheat, maize or rye). Beer is made from barley grains, too, generally with a flavouring from leaves (since a hop bract is more leaf than flower).

The ‘wine world’ is, strictly speaking, fruit-only. So if the wine world is ready to clasp one drink made from grain to its bosom, why not another? If sake, why not beer?

Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than that sake is roughly the same alcoholic strength as strong wine or fortified wine, and that you can also drink it, chilled, from a wine glass if you wish. That, though, seems rather simple-minded.

Perhaps wine and sake’s kinship is that both drinks come from intricate, long-established cultures? So too, though, does beer, which has been brewed for 7,000 years, and whose indigenous culture in the British Isles, Belgium, Holland and Germany is every bit as intricate as European wine traditions and Japanese sake traditions.

Never mind history, then; perhaps the difference is that wine and sake are both more aromatically subtle and more complex in flavour terms than is beer?

Let me just say this: the only alcoholic drink I have ever enjoyed which can truly compete with fine wine in terms of subtlety, nuance and the kind of transcendence of flavour which can dazzle aesthetically as well as hedonically is great English cask-conditioned ale. This is rarely more than half as strong as most sake, but Belgian ales are as fine and sometimes rival wine strengths. American micro-brewed renditions and tributes to these European beer styles are, too, shockingly complex and refined (and strong). I doubt that sake is ‘more’ complex than this, though it may well be as complex, and of course each drink’s spectrum of complexities lie in a different register.

Is is, then, down to techniques? Sake uses umami-suggestive koji fungus (Aspergillus oryzae) in order to render rice fermentable – but beer brewers malt barley in order to render it fermentable, too; moreover they use a spectrum of yeast types of much greater complexity than either sake brewers or wine makers. The precise nature of a particular water source is vital for sake – but the terroir-like effect of using water which has traversed gypsum beds in Burton-upon-Trent for classic English pale ale styles, for example, is no less significant. Aged versions of both sake and beer exist (though both must defer to wine in respect of the complexities wrought by age). Both sake and beer, too, are lower in acidity and higher in pH than wine.

Neither sake-fans nor beer-lovers will like me saying this, but both of these grain-based drinks are industrial rather than (like wine) agricultural. Their subtleties, in other words, are the result of craft and recipe, and owe nothing to any intrinsic weather-related seasonal variability, or to any defining circumscription of origin in terms of raw material. If you want more of a particular beer or sake, you buy more raw materials and turn on the tap. The notion of vintage or site (as in the Burgundian climat) exists in neither world, other than as a marketing gimmick. Most beer and sake is pasteurised.

I guess some wine drinkers would object to the bitter flavours in beer, derived from the resins and essential oils in the lupulin glands of hop bracts; these are not a feature of sake. Many wines, though, derive a part of their complexity from bitter flavours, and (globally speaking) the vast majority of beers are barely bitter at all. Hops in general are divided into ‘aroma hops’ and ‘bittering hops’, and fine beer in almost every brewing tradition is principally flavoured with noble aroma hops (hence its extraordinary aromatic complexity).

The real reason for the adoption of sake (but not beer) by the wine world, it seems to me, must be its novelty – always fashionably attractive – and its exoticism. Poor old beer is just too familiar to be taken seriously by the wine world’s Brahmins, hierophants, couturiers, gatekeepers and mayflies: a notable injustice.

When it comes to divisions of this sort, in fact, I am a radical libertarian in any case, and would love to write about almost any drink of complexity and interest, and especially tea and beer, which I love as much as wine. Pending a big bang in Decanter’s philosophy and vocation, though, it will be back to wine next week.

More Jefford on Monday: