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The sommelier suggests… sake by Xavier Thuizat

We invite a leading sommelier to pick a go-to, favourite grape variety or wine style.

Based at Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, a Rosewood hotel, as head sommelier, Xavier Thuizat also oversees the Rosewood Hotel Group’s European portfolio wine programs. He joined Rosewood in 2016, to work on the reopening of Hôtel de Crillon in 2017. In 2020, Thuizat became only the second sommelier to receive the title Sake Samurai – the highest honour in the world of sake in Japan, awarded jointly by the Japan Sake Brewers Association and the Japanese government. In 2022, he won the title ASI Best Sommelier of France, and he is preparing to compete in the next Best Sommelier of the World competition. In June 2023 Thuizat was officially named as one of the best craftsman in the profession as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France award-winner in the Sommelier category. The Meilleur Ouvrier de France award has recognised craftsmanship in a number of different professions for nearly 100 years.

See also: A drink with… sommelier Xavier Thuizat

It’s my passionate belief that every wine we pour in the restaurant should transport our diners to its place of origin – it should have an unmistakable sense of place. When you taste Japanese sake, you really taste the soul of the place.

Sake is made like a beer, and drunk like a wine. It has three main ingredients: rice, water and knowledge. The first stage sees specially selected rice milled and ‘polished’ to reveal the starch within, steamed and left for several days topped with koji powder – this rice-derived mould kickstarts the conversion of starch in the rice to sugar. The rice is then transferred into a stainless steel tank, with water and yeast added. It’s the only fermented beverage to see two fermentations happen simultaneously within tank: the starch continues to convert to sugar, and the yeast causes the sugar to convert to alcohol. The process takes two to three weeks, after which the sake is filtered, pasteurised and bottled. The speed of the process means vintage sake is ready very quickly – the first 2023 sakes were released as early as February.

The subtle art

It’s the rice that provides the signature of the sake. Yamada Nishiki, the type of rice used to make half of all sake, is incredibly expressive, with notes of fennel and green apple. Omachi, in contrast, a different rice, is more delicate, with clear, pure, green flavours, acidity and freshness – almost a Sauvignon Blanc of rice, if you like. You’ll usually find the type of rice stated on the label, like you would a grape variety in New World wines.

Sake is 80% water, so water is another big influencer of taste. Almost all sake breweries are located in the immediate vicinity of an abundant source of high-quality water, whether from river, well or spring, and waters taste different depending on the type of soil they come from. The truly fascinating thing about the Japanese waters used for sake is how soft they are. Water hardness is commonly measured in °dH; the national average for sake brewing is water with 3.5dH, compared with Evian, for example, which is 13dH. Hard water contains iron and manganese, which are harmful to sake.

Unlike with wine, you’re looking for no tannins, no persistence in the mouth – almost zero taste. In a great sake you really feel the purity of the water. The best examples will be labelled ginjo or daiginjo, which shows that the rice has been polished to a higher degree – this gives more delicacy and elegance. The label will show the percentage of rice left after milling, so the lower the number shown, the higher the quality.

Blank canvas

When it comes to serving, sake is incredibly versatile. It can be served at temperatures ranging from 5°C to 35°C. Enjoy the daiginjo style chilled to highlight the delicacy and freshness, with steamed asparagus in a citrus dressing, perhaps; or with oysters and lemon. In winter, hot sake served with foie gras is delicious, or with veal, or artichoke. When wine can’t make a link, sake often works well. It doesn’t carry the textures and flavours that a red wine does, but it amplifies the textures and flavours of the food.

Sake labels can be intimidating, and prices high outside Japan – yes it’s mainly rice and water, but sake must be kept at below 7°C or it will oxidise, and temperature-controlled transportation is expensive. But I’d urge every reader to try it at least once in their life.

Discover sake: Thuizat’s two to try

Sake isn’t the easiest to find in the UK, so snap up Dewazakura’s Jewel Brocade Omachi Ginjo sake (£37.99 londonsake.com). It’s a sake from the northern part of Japan, and exemplifies purity and freshness. Aromas of green apple and anise lead to a refreshing palate; a perfect sake to pair with crab and a citrus jus.

Meanwhile, readers in the US can find IWA sake (iwa-sake.jp), famously created by Richard Geoffroy, formerly chef de cave at Champagne Dom Pérignon for nearly 30 years. He established his own sake house at the foot of the Toyama mountains on the north side of Honshu island, and has created a ‘blending’ sake that reveals notes of white pepper and delicate spices. Priced at US$175-$200, the texture provides structure, making it the perfect gastronomic sake, an ideal match for grilled veal ribs, mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes.

Read more: an interview with Xavier Thuizat about his new role as Rosewood European Sommelier

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