June 19 2012 11:40 PM

The ins and outs of Japanese rice wine

Azuki owner Shihomi Borillo pours Kanchiku’s “Winter Bamboo,” a daiginjo sake.
Photo by Kelly Davis

To make up for running out of one of the sakes in the three-sake flight I ordered recently at Sabuku, a newish sushi spot in Normal Heights, the server brought me a generous pour of Yoshinagawa's "Winter Warrior."

"Now, that's good," my husband said, putting the glass at an equal distance between us.

Winter Warrior was initially intended for limited release, but its popularity at Sabuku (3027 Adams Ave.) is at least partly responsible for Yoshinagawa's decision to make it available year-round.

It's Sabuku owner Bob Pasela's favorite, too.

"I'm beyond blown away by that sake," he says. "It's the most drinkable sake I've ever tried at any price…. It's full-bodied, but without the acidity that other sakes have."

Perhaps it's the name, but Winter Warrior, for me, evoked snow and pine trees and winterberries. Though, if it were called, say, "Spring Lilac," the flavors might have conjured something different. Bottom line: It's damn-good drinking.

"I think it should be served poolside," Pasela says. "It's cool; it's crisp."

Most folks of drinking age can name at least a few wine varietals; many can talk semi-intelligently about beer. But sake? Ask someone what kind they prefer and you'll probably get "hot" or "cold."

"Sakes can be as complex as wine," Pasela says. "There's a lot to sakes; a lot of the flavors are much more subtle and much more difficult to detect. But, it's there."

And pinning down those flavors can be as interesting—fun, even—as tasting wine or beer. Even the folks whom diners look to for recommendations consider themselves students of the beverage.

Shihomi Borillo, co-owner and manager of Azuki in Bankers Hill (2321 Fifth Ave.), was born in Tokyo, but says that when she opened the restaurant five years ago, she knew nothing about sake; wine was her beverage of choice. But she's been won over.

"Every time I talk to sake makers, they have so much passion, even the sake vendors," she says.

Borillo walked me through some basics: Most bottles display the sake meter value, or SMV, which measures sweetness or dryness on a scale of -10 (sweetest) to +10 (driest). Unfiltered sakes, or nigori, would be in the -10 range.

Sake, made from fermented rice, also falls into three general categories: junmai, ginjo and daiginjo, which refer to how much the rice grains are polished prior to fermentation. There's also honjyozo—that's junmai sake to which a small amount of distilled alcohol's been added. Junmai and honjyozo are the most versatile and also the heartiest. Daiginjo is the most refined. The general rule of thumb: Pair more refined sakes with lighter foods.

Borillo had me try Kikusui's "Chrysanthemum's Mist," a ginjo sake. She noted it was a favorite of chefs Matt Gordon from North Park's Urban Solace and Olivier Bioteau from University Heights' Farm House Café.

"Once a customer gets this, they always stick with this one," she says.

As for buying sake in a store, Yuka Nakai, whose family owns Sake House Yu Me Ya (located in Encinitas and Hillcrest, sakehouseyumeya.com), tells folks to look for sake brewed in Nigata Prefecture, located in northern Japan.

"They have the best rice, best water, best everything," Nakai says. "That prefecture is the perfect prefecture for sake."

Nakai's favorite sake (Yu Me Ya's menu includes up to 60) is Echigo Tsurukame, a jumai sake.

"‘Echigo' is the old name for the Nigata prefecture," she says. "It's really nice; I love that sake. It's not too expensive but has very, very good flavors."

Good sakes should be drunk cold or at room temperature, which is why many restaurants will have only one option—usually Gekkeikan—available hot.

"Generally, it's going to change the flavor and take away from it rather than add to it," Pasela says.

"For us just to throw some expensive bottles [on the menu] to do hot sake, it just doesn't make sense," Borillo says.

Though, Borillo adds, there are folks who'll ask for warm sake, knowing it'll change the flavor.

"Some people will ask for drier sake to be warmed up because it makes [it] milder," she says.

Ultimately, enjoying sake shouldn't be about following a set of rules; it's just a matter of finding what you like.

"I'm more like a fun sake drinker," Nakai says. "I educate the customer at the sake house a little bit, but not in detail professionally, because that's not what they're looking for. So, I just pick the sake for them, and they love it.

"And if they don't like it, I drink it usually," she laughs. 

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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