A guide to sake from five breweries in Honshu, Japan

Versatile: Sake is compatible with many cuisines, not just Japanese.
Versatile: Sake is compatible with many cuisines, not just Japanese. Photo: Rodger Cummins

Japanese sake might be in decline in its homeland, but it's enjoying rising popularity in Australia. Three years ago the Black Market Sake Company opened up in Sydney, importing only sake. Now we have a second dedicated importer, Deja-Vu Sake Company. It's run by long-time Sydney wine wholesaler Andrew Cameron, a part-owner of Deja-Vu Wine Co, and his Japanese wife Yukino Ochiai. The business is thriving.

After operating for just two years, Deja-Vu already sells to 200 restaurants around Australia. Not all are Japanese: three-quarters are non-Japanese. A number of wine shops also stock their sakes (see list).

For simplicity's sake, Deja-Vu deals with just five breweries. These are distributed across Japan's main island, Honshu. All are family owned, each in a different prefecture, offering a well-differentiated range of sakes.

Sake is normally between 15.5 and 16.5 per cent alcohol, which means it's a little stronger than a heavy Barossa Shiraz, but not as strong as port. It's normally served chilled but can also be served at room temperature or warmed up to blood temperature. It goes ideally with Japanese food but the fact that it's sold in so many non-Japanese eateries emphasises its compatibility with many types of food.

Usually, the more expensive the sake, the more refinement the rice has undergone. A Junmai Daiginjo, for example, is made from rice polished so that no more than 50 per cent of the original grain remains. A Junmai Ginjo will be at least 40 per cent polished (with 60 per cent of the grain remaining). Hence, the former will always be more expensive than the latter in a given brewery.

Cameron explains that to polish a grain of rice to 50 per cent necessitates 100 hours of polishing, which takes five days. It's all done by machine, but the loss of yield means the production cost is much higher.

The five breweries are:

Amanoto, in the northern Akita prefecture, between Tokyo and Osaka. All of their rice is grown within 5 kilometres of this very small brewery. Their Junmai Daiginjo 35 ($109/720ml) is superbly delicate and fragrant. It's the most highly refined sake I've tasted: the grains are milled to just 35 per cent of their original size. Their Junkara Junmai Ginjo ($46/720ml) is very dry ("junkara" means "dry") and slightly alcohol-hot, with slight bitterness, and is said to go well with tempura, pork, and braised chicken with mushrooms.

Houraisen, in Aichi prefecture, central Honshu. A high-altitude brewery, at 500 metres above sea level, using some of the softest, low-mineral water in Japan, said to contribute softness to their sakes. They use 60-80 varieties of rice. Their Bi Junmai Daiginjo ($95/720ml) is very refined and fragrant; their Beshi Tokubetsu Junmai ($50/720ml) is mushroomy and floral and dry, and is said to be very adaptable with food.

Yoshinogawa, in Niigata prefecture. Established in 1548, it's the fifth-oldest sake brewery in Japan, run by a 19th generation owner. Their style is dry and crisp. The Gensen Karakuchi Honjozo ($34/720ml) is a drier style with lots of banana and passionfruit aromas. Its 300ml single-serve size is popular; it's also often served by the glass. The Daiginjo ($106/720ml) is, unusually, kept in tanks for three years at minus-5 degrees before bottling. It's very powerful, with a banana note and a long, dry finish.

Dewazakura, in the Yamagata prefecture. Known for fragrant sakes, thanks to the use of special yeasts and low-temperature fermentation. Their Seijo Karakuchi Futsushu ($40/720ml) is a good everyday sake, delicate, with a crisp, clean finish. Cameron calls this the Hunter Semillon of sake. Their Junmai Daiginjo Dewa Sanson ($58/720ml) is said to even match Kobe beef, and is served in US steak houses. I'm not sure I agree, but tempura fish: yes! Their Daiginjo Yamada Nishiki 48 ($74/720ml) is floral, less fruity, with a fennel-seed note, fuller body and a chalky texture that calls for food, such as grilled salmon.

Tengumai, in the Ishikawa prefecture in central Honshu, facing the Japan Sea. The Yamahai Jikomi Junmai ($49/720ml) is a powerful sake in the local style, full-bodied, complex and spicy, with a light yellow colour as a result of the Tengumai process (more than 12 months tank maturation). Their Junmai Daiginjo 50 ($59/720ml) is peppery and delicately citrusy to sniff, with trademark power and body.

Stockists

NSW: Kemeny's, Cremorne Cellars, Vintage Cellars Ultimo and Mosman, Porters Balgowlah, David Jones, Clock Hotel, Vintage Blue, Ballina Discount Liquor, Victoria Park Cellars.

ACT: Jim Murphy's, Curtin Cellars, Hughes IGA, Dan Murphy's online (except Amanoto).

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