Most of the best Saké is imported from Japan but this can raise difficulties when you are trying to read the wine label. Not all imported Saké labels have a complete translation into English. Often you may only see the type of Saké listed, such as a Junmai or Ginjo. Trying to interpret the rest of the label information can be very difficult though there are only a couple items that are of immediate importance.
For the rest of the information, if you truly want to know what it means, you will need to pick up a Saké book which can give you a line by line breakdown of the general meaning of that information. In a later post, I will provide you a list of such good Saké reference works.
When examining a wine bottle, an important element that you look for is the vintage. For the most part though, vintage is irrelevant to Saké. Only aged Sakés generally have a listed vintage and they are relatively uncommon in the U.S. Though vintage is irrelevant, the age of the Saké is not. What is most important for non-aged Sakés is their shipping date, the date when the bottled Saké left the brewery.
The shipping date is usually listed on the label. It is important to remember that the date on the label is not the date when the Saké was produced. After production, Saké is usually stored for six to eighteen months before it is released. The date on the labels is then the date when the Saké has been released, after its storage time. As an example, a Saké may have a shipping date listed of June 2007 but it may have been produced in June 2006.
For U.S. produced Sakés, it should be easy to read that date. But, for imported Saké, it is more of a challenge. The label may have the date listed in a couple formats, such as Year and Month, or Year, Month and Day but the Year generally comes first. But, the year is listed according to the Japanese calendar. How many understand the Japanese calendar? Probably not too many.
But the important part is relatively easy to understand. In Japan, the current era name is Heisei and began in 1989 when the Emperor ascended the throne. Each subsequent year is numered from his ascension to the throne. Thus the year 2007 is Heisei 19. As you commonly want to buy Saké that has shipped within the last year, then you want the year to be 19.
I was at a local wine store that stocked five different Saké brands. But when I looked at the bottles, the shipping date for all of them was 2006. That is now more than a year old so it is probably not the Saké you want to buy. You want the freshest Saké possible, and should not buy it if the shipping date is over a year old. This is similar to the situation with Sherry where it should often be drank as young as possible, but some wine stores have had the Sherry sitting on their shelves for far too long.
Saké Meter Value (SMV)
The SMV, also known as the Nihonshu-do, is a measure of the specific gravity, or density, of Saké. Though it may seem like an arcane scientific term, it has a very useful application to Saké. The SMV provides some indication as to the degree of sweetness or dryness of a Saké, which is important as to the style of Saké you want to drink. A negative SMV indicates a sweeter Saké and a positive SMV indicates a drier Saké. Interestingly enough, a SMV of +2, not 0, is considered a neutral value. This is because tastes have changed over the years.
The SMV is commonly listed on a Saké label so you can get a general idea of the style of the Saké. Even if you have a Japanese label, you can still find the SMV. Just look on the back label for a number with a + or - in front of it. There should be no more than two numbers like that, the SMV and the storage temperature. The temperature number is easy to differentiate as it will be accompanied by a "C" for Celsius. So, if the two numbers on your label are "+4" and "-3 C" then you would know the +4 was the SMV.