The latest issue of Wine Spectator (May 21, 2013), which has a cover story on Sushi, also contains two articles on Sake, as well as tasting notes for over 50 Sakes. Overall, I was pleased with the articles and tasting notes, and they cover lots of ground and give a decent foundation for understanding Sake. The articles note the growing popularity of Sake in the U.S. and I was especially pleased to see the main article mention that Sake "pairs nicely with Western cuisines as well, including, fish, poultry and pork dishes." I have long advocated that Sake is extremely food friendly, with all types of cuisines, and I have discussed the myriad reasons for why that is the case.
The second of the articles, Sake's True Believers, by Mitch Frank, an Associate Editor, describes some of the biggest sake fans and advocates, from John Gauntner to Marcus Pakiser, from Monica Samuels to Henry Sidel. It mentions how vital Sake education is for consumers, wine stores and restaurant. Sake can be intimidating, even for experienced wine drinkers, but the basics are not that difficult to understand. The article also notes that price is an issue, as there are only a small number of premium Sakes available under $20. That is an area that needs to be addressed, and there are some solutions, such as finding good futsuhu and promoting half-bottles.
The primary article is Decoding Sake by Kim Marcus, the Managing Editor,and it provides a basic introduction to the world of Sake, noting matters such as its comparisons to wine, how it is created, the various categories and more. It makes a good case for the promotion of Sake, and it is great to see Wine Spectator advocating for Sake. However, though the article gets much that is correct, there are a few bits which were incorrect or misleading. I'll try to provide some clarifications on these matters.
On page 71, the article notes that nigori is "unfiltered," and that is incorrect, though it is a common error. Usually Sake undergoes a charcoal filtration, and if it is not filtered as such, then the Sake is called muroka. That is true, unfiltered Sake. The term "nigori" actually means "cloudy" and refers to the milky colored mass found within a nigori. That milky mass contains Sake lees, unfermented rice and koji.
How do you make Nigori then? During the production process, the Sake will eventually be pressed, to separate the lees from the Sake liquid. This pressing is commonly conducted with a series of mesh panels, though there are a few other processes which can be done instead. The pressing stage is a legal requirement, so for many years, only clear Sake was considered legal. Cloudy Sake was commonly considered moonshine. In 1966, this all changed due to a creative brewery which wanted to legally produce Nigori Sake. They wanted to press their Sake, but use mesh panels with larger holes, which would permit some of the lees into the liquid. The government approved this practice, and soon other breweries started making Nigori in this manner as well.
On page 71, the article states that Daiginjo Sake is sometimes polished down to as little as 35%. That is not fully true as you can find Daiginjos that have been polished down even lower, to as little as 9%. A popular Sake is the Dassai 23, which has been polished down to 23%.
On pages 71 & 74, the article states that a Junmai Sake must be polished down to at least 70%. That is incorrect, and another very common error, as Junmai actually lacks a minimum polishing requirement. Prior to 2004, it had that polishing requirement, but the law changed. As of January 1, 2004, any Sake that is made with only rice, water, koji and yeast is considered a Junmai, no matter the amount of the polishing rate. So you could have a Junmai Sake that is only polished down to 80%. Honjozo Sake has a polishing requirement, and at least 30% of the rice must be polished away.
Curiously, on page 72, the article alleges that John Gauntner stated that Sake is made in all but two of Japan's 47 prefectures. I doubt they recently spoke to John about this issue, and probably relied on an old Sake book for this information. In recent years, John has repeatedly stated that Sake is made in all but one Japanese prefecture. And most recently, even that has changed. Kagoshima Prefecture, which had long been the sole holdout, now has a Sake brewery so Sake is now produced in every Prefecture of Japan.
There is information on aged Sake which appears to contradict itself in this article. On page 71, there is a reference to "premium aged sakes" but then on page 72, it states, "You don't age sake." Though rare, aged Sakes exist and commonly are referred to as Koshu, though other terms are sometimes used as well. These aged Sakes may generally be matured for 2-10 years, and there are two main styles. Some Sake is aged under very low temperatures, and it will look as clear as any other Sake. The aging can help to round out flavors and deepen the complexity. If it is not aged in cold temperatures, the Sake may darken, acquiring more earthy, nutty, and sweet notes. In some respects, it reminds me of Tawny Port or Aged Sherry.
Aged Sake was actually popular back in the 17th & 18th centuries, but diminished in popularity as brewers stopped aging it for financial reasons. As they were taxed by the government on what they brewed, not sold, they wanted to recoup their expenses as quickly as possible. Currently, some Sake lovers are even experimenting with aging Sake on their own.
Kudos to Wine Spectator for writing about Sake, but hopefully they will write about it more than once a year.