Saturday, November 21, 2015

In the Beginning...

In the Beginning....

I have two more days left of class.  It has been a year that I have dedicated my Thursday evenings to learning about wine.  As you and I both likely recall, I started this as a novice.  I knew what I liked.  I thought I knew what I did not like which may be at least as important as knowing what I liked.  I knew France was the modern day birthplace and Meca of wine, but I also knew very little of the ravings of the place.  I knew Bordeaux made wines from Cabernet and from Merlot, I knew I was not the biggest fan of Champagne, I knew I like Grenache based Rhone Blends.  I also had tried a lot of Burgundy, and was not the biggest fan of Pinot Noir.  (I have since rectified that problem)

I like many men who are new to wine liked, (Puff out chest and say with pride) "Really BIG reds."  Translation, "I like Cabernet Sauvignon from California mostly because I do not know a whole lot more about wine."  I also liked fruit forward, easy drinking patio whites as I call them now.  Things like Sauvignon Blanc.  I knew Riesling came in varying levels of sweetness, but I knew little of the dry version which has quickly rocketed towards my favorite whites on the planet.  Riesling from Mosel, or from Alsace really are red drinkers whites.  To borrow a quote from my teacher, the only problem with those whites is that they don't have any red in them.

So, why so reminiscent?  I already mentioned that I have only two classes left.  When I set out on this path, I thought a year in, I would know a lot about wine.  Many would argue that I have learned a lot, and I suppose I have.  In addition to Riesling, I have learned of the beauty of the wines of Italy and Spain.  I have grown to appreciate wine as a spice or seasoning to be appreciated with food, and that unlike California "BIG REDS",  wines from Italy and Spain maintain their acid, and provide tension.  The acid will make your mouth water and make you long for the next bite of food.  Italian wines in particular are beautiful in that regard.  I have built a growing cellar of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino.  I have also learned that Wines from Greece are interesting and emerging.  Wines like Xeno Mavro, and Asyrtiko have become bottles on somewhat frequent rotation in our home.  Gruner Ventliner from Austria is an amazing wine and even at 15 dollars delivers a fabulous drinking experience especially with food.  Finally, in the new world, I have learned that Chile and Argentina make some great wines from Camenere and Malbec respectively that offer some tremendous value.

I already knew of California and have spent some time in Napa and Sonoma exploring, but in the last year, I have also gone to Australia's Yarra Valley, and Santa Barbara County and enjoyed talking to winemakers and cellar masters about their trade. 

I have spent my first year making wine from crush to bottling.  Oddly, I now own 3 wood barrels, and they all sit in my basement, they are full of wine that will be bottled in 2016.  I have 40 bottles of my own 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon in the basement aging and I am ecstatic with the finished product.  I would have never believed a year ago that I would be making my own wine, much less making my own wine and enjoying drinking it.  Like, really enjoying drinking it.

Ok, I have definitely learned a lot.  And yet, as I prepare to take my test to get certified as a Sommelier, I am humbled.  I understand that I have spent a full year of my life learning about wine.  A DRINK for God's sake.  I have left my family, friends, kids, work, and many other opportunities in life behind to learn about a humble drink that has been made since the 1st century and likely before that.  People have been making the stuff forever, and drinking it just as long, and they likely knew almost nothing.  To me, that is the most amazing thing about this journey.  

They knew nothing, a short time ago in history.  They certainly knew nothing of the wine that was not made in their village.  They did not know  how grape juice miraculously turned into this magic elixir called wine.  Not why when placed in barrels, some of the wine disappeared (They called that the angels' share).  

I have spent the last year of my life learning about a single drink, and yet, like them, I feel like I know almost nothing as well.  The amount of information available to day about wine is staggering.  Soil types, geography, geology, wine making techniques, history, grape types, flavor profiles, wine laws, weather, who makes it, who bottles it, vintages and the best years in the vineyards, the best vintners in a region, customs, food pairing, service requirements, and much more.

I am beginning to accumulate my flashcards to prepare for the test.  There are so many things to remember.  I began studying by looking once again at Burgundy, which by all accounts is the most difficult place to learn about in the wine world.  So many little vineyards, and makers, and vineyard sites.  All of the grand cru, the 5 wine making regions of Burgundy, and it should be so simple.  Burgundy, for the most part, is about two grapes.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  It is that simple.  From that simplicity comes the complex.  I took just over 100 flash cards for me to capture the things I will need to know in order to take this test.  That is one region, in one country. 

I can't help but be reminded that in the beginning, when I began writing this blog, when I began my class, and when I started drinking a lot more wine, I knew Nothing. I was overwhelmed, and I think my writing way back then reflected that.  I aspired to learn more about wine, and the places it was made, and yet, I felt like I could never be successful knowing all there is to know.

What the last year has confirmed is that I was right.  Here I sit a year in with more questions than answers.  I have hundreds of flash cards and I am learning more every day, but now I know what I don't know.  In the past, when I started all of this, ignorance was bliss (Whew). 

I realize I can't possibly know it all, but I also realize the learning process will bring a lot of enjoyment.  You see, the best way to learn about wine is to taste it.  I have A LOT more learning to do.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Sake; Not just with Sushi

This class was good for me in many ways.  It made me a novice again for one.  I like Sake, don't get me wrong.  I even once listened to a podcast with an expert talking about Koji rice, and how it is added to a wort like liquid and they make rice wine from a mold called Aspergillus.  

When I went to a Japanese restaurant, I would even frequently order some Sake.  How?  I would close my eyes and point to a bottle that was in a price range I liked, and presto, some sake would show up at my table.  The beautiful carafe, the cute little shot glass, or sometimes, the wooden box.  It is always exciting.  On occasion, I would actually make a good pick and really enjoy my experience.  The banana, the yeasty, champagne like nose, the jasmine flower.  Sometimes it will have been aged and give some caramel notes.  More often than not however, it is a nondescript, subtle, non-offensive drink.  It matches and supports the sushi, but it left no lasting memory of itself after the meal.  I rarely if ever asked, "What was the name of that sake again?"  And yet, I continued to order more.  Why?  I couldn't tell you.  Other wines pair famously with sushi.  Riesling, Sparkling, Grunner (I think it pairs with everything).  Dry Japanese beer works well too, and is one of the few beer categories I actually LOVE.  (Oddly the other is stouts and porters which bear no resemblance to the Japanese beers at all)

Perhaps sake is just like peanut butter and jelly.  It just goes with my sushi and just... belongs there.  Perhaps it was the tradition.  Perhaps there is something in its subtlety that continued to intrigue me.  I am not sure.  What I do know is that there are years of tradition behind the beverage.  People dedicate their lives to making it well, tasting it well, pairing it well.  It is wine after all.  Not grape wine, but rice wine.  It comes from an ancient society, with ancient rituals, and sake has been a part of some of those rituals for centuries.

The history of Sake began in 700 AD in Japan making it one of the oldest alcoholic drinks on the planet perhaps only slightly behind beer and wine.  True Sake, and there are posers out there believe me, is made from 3 ingredients.  Water (Special water), Rice, and Koji (A mold made from Aspergillus oryzae).  

Sake is produced in a Sake Brewery called a Kura or a Sagakura by a brewer called a Toji.  The rice that is used is not Uncle Ben's Rice either.  They use special long grain, low protein rice called Shuzo Kotekimai, the best of which is Yamada Nishiki rice.  I mentioned earlier that water plays a big role as well.  The Toji chooses water based on the style of Sake he is looking to make.  The harder the water, the dryer the Sake will be in the finished product.  Conversely, the softer, the sweeter.  (Soft=Sweet).  

The brewing process for Sake is sort of like beer in that you need to move the sugar out of the grain by heating the liquid converting starch into sugar.  It is unlike beer however in that it is a two step fermentation process.  The polished rice (More on rice polishing later) is cooked, and added, and the yeast and Koji and its enzymes which also help to creat sugar from the rice are added to the mixture.  These two steps are done in parallel.  Yeast is pitched, and converts the sugar to alcohol. 

Back to Rice polishing, and I always find this funny.  I picture little guys in a room with a tiny cloth, polishing rice grains one by one.  I am sure that is not the process but that is always what I picture.  The more the rice is polished, the more refined the finished product.  "Ginjo" Sake is a premium Sake that only uses 50-60% of the rice grain, while Daiginjo Sake is a super premium Sake that uses no more than 50%.
Also, sake comes in two other categories.  On the left of the pyramid, there is Junmai Sake, which has no distilled alcohol added during the process, and Honjozo sake, which has alcohol added.  The bottom of the pyramid is called Futsu Shu or regular sake, and the top starting with Junmai is referred to as Tokutei Meisho-shu or premium sake.

Honjozu-shu is more fragrant, generally more earthy, has a longer finish and often is served better warm, although not always.  Junmai is more delicate.  It also tends to have higher acidity and can also be more full bodied.  

Nama-Zake is a Draft Sake that is unpasteurized.  It preserves freshness and aroma.  All above sake varieties can be made Nama-Zake style.  Nigori is another unfiltered Sake.  It has a bursting nose by sake standards.  It is white and cloudy from the lees making it into the bottle.

Jizake are small boutique breweries that are not mass produced.  These are often hard to find in the US.  Amakuchi is SWEET sake,...Genshu is higher in alcohol.  Most Sake is watered down to bring alcohol levels down.  Genshu is not.

Another rare type of Sake is Ginga Shizuku.  This is a drip pressed Sake, that is drip pressed in an igloo which the brewery must rebuild each year outside of the normal production facility.  Sake may also be sparkling or aged to bring out different flavors.

Terroir in Sake also plays a role.  In the North and East of the island of Japan, Sake tends to be tight, compact and light, but as one heads South and East, it gets bigger.  This is due in part to the water sources used as that plays a big role in the flavor of the finished product.

As you can see, there are 6 major regions in Japan for Sake.  It is made everywhere on the island, but the 6 major regions are as follows.  First Nada.  One third of sake in Japan comes from Nada.  Nada benefits from good water and a port which makes shipping easier.  The Sake from this region are sturdy yet feminine.  

Second is Fushimi.  Fushimi also makes a more feminine product.  In the city of Kyoto, it is not far from Tokyo and easily accessible to ship by train.

Third is Niigata.  Snowy, with lots of mountains and known for high quality rice,  this is the Burgundy or Bordeaux of Japan.  It makes very good dry Sake, and due to a high number of master brewers of Toji, it is sought after Sake.

Fourth is Akita.  Akita used to be a mining town, and it has converted to a Sake town due to high quality rice.  This is tight sake with great balance.

If you can get past the glowing in the bottle, Hiroshima is 5th.  (Kidding of course)  Soft water allows for great soft, sweet and balanced sake.  This is the region that has also lead the country in adopting technology.

Finally, Fukushima too has great rice and water.  These are soft and light wines.  Subtle flavors, but styles vary vastly in this region.

So maybe now, I will be able to do a little more than guess on the menu.  Hopefully you will too.  By the way, there is one more thing you should know.  It is not good form to pour your own Sake.  So make sure to pour for others first, and let someone pour for you after.  It is bad luck or something.  If you are ordering Sake, you may need all of the good luck you can get.


As for how I started, blue cheese pairs well with Sake too.  Who knew.