Taking a Language of Wine class at Astor Center with May Matta-Aliah

I have been tasting and studying sake for over ten years now and even though I know a hell of a lot about sake process and types, I am embarrassed for my flavor vocabulary. I am often tasting sake with people of the industry such as restauranteurs, sake distributors, brewers, and educators. They so eloquently describe what they are tasting and I so needed a crash coarse in it. This would also serve a dual purpose because one of my long time goals with sake is to understand what type of sake someone would like depending on what their favorite wine or drink is.

This class was a really good start but I want to keep going, learning and practicing. All of her information and tasting experience were very valuable and I highly recommend taking this class yourself, but my favorite part was the focus on the four components of wine and tasting to identifying those components in wine.

First was acidity which is a brightness and crispness bordering on tart but she also pointed out that it makes your mouth water. To help us identify the flavor we all tasted lemon juice. The wines that we tasted acidity in was a chablis. The chablis was on the tart side of acidic so I think if someone liked that then I would recommend a yamahi sake because that is a sake that the lactic acid forms naturally by old fashion methods and can often taste more acidic. But, we were also taught that generally acidic wines are higher in alcohol, so I would not rule a genshu out of this category since that is the undiluted sake and tastes stronger. The other side of acidic is crispness or cleanness which I suppose would be a wine that was acidic but not to this extreme, possibly a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. When talking about a sake that is smooth and clean, I would think of a junmai from a cold region like Niigata. Acidic wines are paired with tomato sauce, ceviche, and oysters.

The next component sweetness can be identified by the fruitiness. Sweetness uses a scale from dry to sweet with off dry in the middle, but when a wine is too sweet they will often balance the sweetness with acid, and vice versa. To help us identify this flavor we drank sugar water and I was reminded of science labs when I tasted this almost exclusively in the middle of my tongue, apposed to the tip of my tongue with the lemon juice. The Gewurztraminer was the sweetest and most delicious wine we had that day, but it was still only technically considered off dry. For a true sweet wine, I could go for a Moscato. If you will allow me, I might say that the off dry wine (which was still quite sweet) is like a nama sake which is unpasturized and sweet and if you will let me say that the sweet wine is like plum wine. Plum wine is a very sweet wine and not technically sake but is often grouped together and a very sweet wine is also a class of its own. If you wont let me count it then I would say that the sweet wine is a nama junmai daiginjo (which is both sweet from the nama and fragrant from the junmai daiginjo) while the off dry is a nama junmai or a nama genshu (which balance out the sweetness from the nama a bit more with richness). I was surprised to learn that sweet wines are often paired with sweet and spicy Asian foods such as gingery Chinese food or Indian curries.

I thought tannin was something you could only really experience with a wine but after comparing it to some tea, it became clearer that it wasnt just a drying texture but its also bitter. Bitterness can add great complexity but can be your enemy when its not in the right balance. Tannins also give wine their longevity which is a sign of quality. Because bitterness alone can be overwhelming, wines rich in tannins shine when paired with braised meats and meat sauces. The tannic wine we tried was Sangiovese whose tannins were enhanced by the dryness and high acidity, but a tannic wine with a more pleasing balance of components might be any of the three B’s: a barolo, barbaresco, or a bordeaux. The first sake Id liken this to is a nigori which is the cloudy type created by using a larger filter when sifting out the rice since it is also categorized by its mouth feel, although most nigoris are also sweet because that makes a nice pairing which I dont pair with tannins at all. But when you talk about the bitterness of the tannins then I might liken it to a taru which is aged in casks and has a tabaco-y flavor, altho the wine aged in oak casks might be a better comparison to taru sake. This was a hard one to compare to sake.

Lastly we explored the body of a wine by first drinking some skim then whole milk. I had always known that body was mouth-feel and richness but the one bullet point that caught my eye was “Heat (from alcohol)”, aka kuchi atari. Just like sweetness and acidity balance each other out, body is like something exploding in your mouth while tannin is like having all the moisture sucked out of it. Either imploding or exploding, both pair well with meats. For body we tasted a Syrah which is one of my go-to wines for its round black fruit flavor. Something I was surprised to learn is the alcohol content is directly related to body, but i guess this is why full body balances nicely with low acid and high sweetness. Body is the component that it hardest to explain for me and the fact that it is often paired with a low acid high sweet wine makes it confusing, but maybe the component would be clearer in another full bodied wine like a cabernet sauvignon or a malbec. Because of this, I would have to say that a wine with high body is a genshu which is the undiluted sake and when paired with low acid high sweet then it is a nama genshu which is one of my favorite pairs of undiluted (strong) and unpasturized (sweet), much more than a wine with high acidy. A genshu usually has high kuchi atari but so does a junmai which is the classic and most produced type of sake and sometimes when extra alcohol has been added to a ginjo or daiginjo.

Besides the components of wine, there are also certain features of wine that can alter the flavor of wine such as being fermented in oak casks or being aged.

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