Randal Caparoso Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

The first historical "Sake Summit"
© Randal Caparoso

The first historical "Sake Summit," sponsored by the International Sake Institute in New York City this past May 3-4, was meant to showcase two things:

1. What a beautiful and fine wine (albeit, made from rice rather than grapes) sake can be.

2. How far along American produced sakes have come in comparison to Japanese sakes.

Alas, in a blind professional tasting matching 21 Japanese sakes against 12 upstarts from the U.S., plus 3 from Australia, the Japanese products generally proved to have the upper hand in finesse, balance, sheer flavor and pizzaz. There was to be no shocking upset recalling the 1976 Paris Tasting (when a couple of American wines were judged to be finer than some France's most famous wines). I know, because I was one of the eight judges. The American and Australian sakes did not come nearly as close as the scores suggest.

Besides myself, one of the judges was Haruo Matsuzaki; considered a national treasure in Japan because of his ability to identify, in blind tastings, as many as 1,635 different sakes. Another one of the judges was an American named John Gauntner who lives in Japan, but whose "sake palate" is so well respected that he writes the sake column for the Japan Times.

How do you judge sakes? Matsuzaki says he always looks for "smoothness," although I noted that he also appreciates "true" sake aromas - something akin to honeydew melon and roasted nuts, with "natural" nuances reminiscent of green meadows, bubbling brooks, etc. Gauntner talks about "umami" - that Japanese sense of deliciousness that you feel when all components gel and activate all the senses, from the nose to all parts of the palate.

The sake judging was divided into two classes: the first made up of Daiginjo (pronounced "die-gin-joe," the second syllable like "begin") or "ultra-premium" sakes; and the second group made up of less expensive Ginjo or "premium" sakes. These are the finest sakes made in the world today; which are always served well chilled (heating up fine sakes would be like boiling your Chardonnay), and are best tasted in a tulip shaped wine glass (although like wine, tumblers and glass slippers would do in a pinch).

Just about all of the following sakes are available in specialty stores in major U.S. cities. Without further ado, here's how they were rated, along with the judges' average scores based upon a contemporary 100 point scale, plus approximate retail prices and bottle sizes:

Daiginjo ("Ultra-Premium") Sakes

1. Gekkakow "Vintage 1999" by Kiuchi, Japan (scored 92; $80-$90/720 ml.) - A rare, single-vintage sake, aged three years in stainless steel tanks before release. Beautifully bright pineapple-coconut scent with licorice nuances; fine, silky entry with salt-watery flow, rounded fullness in the middle, and a mouth watering, nectarine-like finish tinged with a whispering sweetness.

2. Kurakagami "Mirror of the Kura" by Kiuchi, Japan (scored 91; $50-$70/720 ml.) - A kura is a sake brewery, which sake author Grif Frost now likes to refer to as a "sakery." Fresh, lacy notes of honeydew melon and peach skin (classic daiginjo fruitiness), wet stone and anise seed; silky, almost oily texture, buoyantly balanced feel of tropical fruit, finishing with an emphatic dryness.

3. Minowamon by Daishichi, Japan (scored 91; $85-$105/720 ml.) - Lush, tropical fruit nose suggesting mango, dripping pears and water on green grapes; emphatically dry and dense impact on the palate with a weighty, rice-like feel and mild, apple-like crispness.

4. Kurahibiki, "Echo of the Kura" by Kiuchi, Japan (scored 90; $75-$95/720 ml.) - Sweet melon and green meadow-like freshness in the nose; full, dry, "rounded stone" structure, transitioning into nut toned green melon flavors edged with the slightest sweetness.

5. Ken "Sword" by Suehiro, Japan (scored 90; $75-$95/720 ml.) - Lush, fresh apple and green grape aromas with hints of charcoal; elegantly balanced like fine dry white wine, but full and fleshy like first rate sake, finishing with a dramatic, mouth watering, watermelony (in Hawaii, like "mountain apple") fruitiness.

6. Ginga Shizuku "Divine Droplets" by Takasago, Japan (scored 88; $60-$80/720 ml.) - Juicy apple and "stony brook" aromas with subtle char; creamy, fleshy and layered on the palate with melony fresh, lively, mildly anise-like flavors, given a bright, almost umami-like (or "savory") definition.

7. Wakatake Onikoroshi "Young Bamboo Devil Killer," Japan (scored 88; $40-$60/720 ml.) - Intense daiginjo fruitiness suggesting lush pear, green melon and pineapple; round and layered feel, finishing full with minerally dryness and mildly bitter, honeyed nut tones.

8. Otokoyama "Man's Mountain," Japan (scored 86; $125-$145/720 ml.) - Stony, banana-and-coconut daiginjo nose leading to creamy smooth, silken textured flavors of fine length if fairly lean intensity.

9. Yaegaki Mu "Nothingness," Japan (scored 86; $40-$60/720 ml.) - Lush, complex, daiginjo nose of white peach with exotic, mango-like notes; silken fine and delicate on the palate, with a minerally flow, finishing dry and snappy.

10. Matsu no Midori "Jade Green Pine" by Yamamoto, Japan (scored 85; $45-$65/720 ml.) - Moderately intense style, showing creamy, mineral and ricey earth tones in the nose; enters softly on the palate, but crisp and dry in the middle and finish.

11. Go-Shu "40" by Sun Masamune, Australia (scored 84; $25-$30/720 ml.) - Pear and cantaloupe nose with a dried grass edge; fairly lean, dry quality on the palate, finishing with a mildly bitter, nutty tone.

12. Y "Sky" by SakéOne, USA (scored 84; $30-$35/750 ml.) - Mildly fig-like nose tinged by creamy, charred nuances; straightforward, slightly plodding feel on the palate underlined by whispery sweet, melony fruitiness.

13. Y "Wind" by SakéOne, USA (scored 83; $30-$35/750 ml.) - Banana oil and faintly yeasty, dough-like notes in the nose; dry, slightly hard, lean feel on the palate, but laced with mild, honeyed fruit qualities.

Ginjo ("Premium") Sakes

1. Hatsumago "The First Grandchild" by Meiju, Japan (scored 89; $25-$30/720 ml.) - Classic ginjo style - natural, clean, and mildly earthy - opening with a creamy sweet melon aroma, developing round, easy, mildly minerally qualities on the palate,

2. Kikumasamune, Japan (scored 88; $25-$30/720 ml.) - Lush, tropical, banana-nut aromatics; silken smooth and fine, finishing with a softly sweet, easy fruitiness.

3. Kuromatsu-Hakushika Sennenju by Tatsuma Honke, Japan (scored 88; $50-$60/720 ml.) - Lightly creamy and spirity notes leading to a dry, rounded feel.

4. Shirayuki by Konishi, Japan (scored 88; $9-$12/300 ml.) - Light, creamy fruit with dried banana notes; dry, direct, mild apple crispness on the palate.

5. Caparoso Wines, "Vin de Riz," USA (scored 87; $16-$21/750 ml.) - The highest scoring non-Japanese sake in both categories; showing a mildly melony ginjo aroma, and a round, textured, slightly oily, well constructed feel punctuated by a stony dryness.

6. Rikasuimei "Pear Flower in Clear Water" by Chiyomusubi, Japan (scored 86; $25-$30/720 ml.) - Creamy melon fragrance with banana-like nuances; firmly dry, lean, but mildly viscous, crisp apple fruitiness on the palate.

7. Hananomai, "Dance of Flowers" by Meiju, Japan (scored 86; $25-$30/720 ml.) - White peach and nectarine-like nuances in the nose; smoothly dry entry, finishing with a crisp, faintly citrus-like sweetness on the palate.

8. Ozeki "Premier," USA (scored 85; $21-$26/720 ml.) - Creamy pear, melon and mildly charred notes in the nose; fairly dry and soft feel in the entry, finishing with wet fruitiness tinged by mildly sweet alcohol.

9. Gekkeikan "Haiku," USA (scored 85; $12-$17/750 ml.) - Fruity melon nose; fleshy roundness on the palate, finishing with a dry, full alcohol feel.

10. "Napa Saki" by SakeOne, USA (scored 85; $23-$28/750 ml.) - Airy fresh, creamed corn and roasted nut fragrances; soft and easy entry, finishing dry and lean.

11. Momokawa "Silver" by SakéOne, USA (scored 84; $10-$12/750 ml.) - Forward, fruity aroma with jasmine rice-like nuances; lean, crisp, stony dryness on the palate.

12. Mukune "Root of Innocence" by Daimon, Japan (scored 84; $30-$35/750 ml.) - Tropical, cooking banana aroma; smooth, round, gentle feel, kicked up by a faintly citrus-like crispness.

13. Shochikubai by Takara, USA (scored 84; $4-$6/300 ml.) - Moderately intense, sweet banana nose; soft, easy, round style, finishing with honeyed roasted nut tones.

14. Koi no kawa "Love River" by Koikawa, Japan (scored 83; $40-$50/720 ml.) - Creamy, banana-coconut ginjo aroma; silky, if lean, on the palate, finishing with a licoricey dryness.

15. Bichuwajo "Unity of Brewing" by Nariwa Ozeki, Japan (scored 83; $35-$45/720 ml.) - Soft melon aroma; a light, if lean, sweet pea flavor in the entry, with a smooth, stony dryness.

16. Rihaku "Wandering Poet," Japan (scored 83; $30-$40/720 ml.) - Subtle fruit in the nose; softly sweet, full alcohol feel on the palate.

17. Momokawa "Diamond" by SakéOne, USA (scored 83; $10-$12/750 ml.) - Creamy, minerally, melon and charred nuances in the nose; mildly crisp, but also lean and tight on the palate.

18. Hakusan "Premium" by Kohnan, USA (scored 82; $8-$10/750 ml.) - Melony sake nose; full and mildly crisp, apple-like taste, finishing with a lean dryness.

19. Momokawa "Ruby" by SakéOne, USA (scored 82; $10-$12/750 ml.) - Creamy nuanced, leafy nose, hinting at apricot; lean, but notably zesty on the palate, finishing with a suggestion of sweetness.

20. Go-Shu Blue by Sun Masamune, Australia (scored 82; $11-$13/720 ml.) - Low key, earthy nose; dry quality on the palate.

21. Go-Rin by Sun Masamune, Australia (scored 78; $13-$16/720 ml.) - Mildly spicy, tropical fruit nuances in the nose; soft but lean, salted nut and faintly sweet qualities on the palate.

22. Kurosawa "Black Creek," Japan (scored 76; $16-$20/720 ml.) - Creamy scented qualities; dry, sparingly melon-like taste.

23. Hakusan "Mild" by Kohnan, USA (scored 74; $8-$10/750 ml.) - Suggestions of muscat and melon in the nose; firmly dry on the palate.

For more detailed reports, visit http://www.sakes.com.

May 7, 2002

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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