Tuesday, October 02, 2007

It's Sake to Me?

It may have been to Rowan & Martin, but it's white rice wine in Paris:

Seiko Lulubell Hirabayashi, the eldest daughter of a family of brewers reaching back 18 generations from the mountains of Nagano province on Japan's main island of Honshu....

Her family brewery specialises in a high-end type of sake called "ginjo" whose flavour -- light and mineral, with green, fruity notes -- is more akin to a white wine than the rustic, gin-like aroma of a traditional sake.

Sake is made from grains of rice that are whittled down to around two-thirds of their initial size to remove the husk and protein-rich outer layers.

The grain's smooth, starchy white heart is rinsed, soaked, cooked and fermented with the help of an enzyme called koji-kin, producing a clear beverage with about 16-percent alcohol content.

Much of the sake consumed in Japan -- and exported around the world -- is a mixture of this basic rice wine, raw alcohol and sugar.

Ginjo is at the other end of the spectrum: it is made from a unique type of rice called Yamada Nishiki, whose grains are reduced to between half and a quarter of their initial size.

...."Most people used to see sake as a dry, simple, drink -- they didn't look for flavour," she said.

"But as Japanese consumers discovered imported French wine, they got used to more complex flavours -- and they started turning to more refined sakes."

One of half a dozen high-end Paris cellars to have opened their doors to ginjo -- thanks in part to a Japanese in-house oenologist -- the Caves Legrand sells about a dozen bottles a month.

But around the corner, a Japanese delicatessen called ISSE workshop is working hard to convert trendy young Parisians to the stuff, as they pop in for takeaway sushi or an after-work Japanese cookery class.

Kei Miyagawa, 45, the workshop's sommelier, readily serves up a selection of ginjo or more refined daiginjo, as well as exclusive dassai -- made with rice whittled down to 23 percent of its size -- to curious Parisians.

He uses wine glasses -- never traditional shallow cups -- to reveal the wine's full aroma, and to break the association with cheap after-dinner sake.

...."Sake is a niche here, it will never be a mass consumer market," says Miyagawa, who imports ginjo directly from four selected Japanese producers, selling some 400 bottles per month.

The typical French sake drinker is a chic, 30-year-old male, ready to splash out on a bottle whose price can range from 35 to 65 euros (50 to 90 dollars) as a gift, or to impress friends.

The real growth area is with restaurants, Miyagawa believes. High-end ginjo is served in no more than 50 of the 600-odd Japanese-style eateries in the Paris region, whose number has soared in the space of five years, according to him.

But he is determined sake should not be pigeon-holed to Japanese cuisine: as the perfect meal for a glass of ginjo, he suggests not yaki-zakana -- Japanese salt-broiled fish -- but braised sea bream with with an emulsion of foie gras.

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