Sippin' Summer Sake

Made from fermented rice, sake is the traditional wine of Japan. First produced more than 2,000 years ago, this refreshing, versatile and revered beverage is gaining popularity in America.

Served right from the bottle, chilled sake makes a great summer aperitif wine or first-course starter. Depending on the style (sweet or dry), sake can also be served with dinner, dessert or even mixed in cocktails.

So how can you detect the quality of a bottle of sake? Look for two quality-related production techniques: rice preparation and added alcohol.

Rice kernels used for making sake have dense starchy centers. Before fermentation, a portion of the kernel's outer layer is polished off to remove fat and proteins. A more polished kernel produces greater sake quality.

Next, koji, a mold enzyme, is added to help convert the rice starch to fermentable sugars. As with wine, sake production involves a fermentation process in which added yeast converts the sugars into alcohol.

Sake made from highly polished rice with alcohol produced by natural fermentation is considered high quality. It is best served chilled to preserve the sake's crisp, aromatic flavor.

Lesser-quality sake is produced by using lightly polished rice and/or by adding distilled alcohol during the fermentation process to "stretch" the size of the batch. This practice began during World War II when rice was in short supply, but continues today. Lower-quality sake can be served cold; however, heating the wine will enhance the wine's top flavors while hiding lesser, undesirable traits.

With lots of styles, it is helpful to understand basic labeling terms. Futsuu-shu or bulk sake has plenty of added alcohol and is best served hot. Honjozo-shu has some alcohol added just before filtration while junmai-shu is reserved for wines with no added alcohol. The term ginjo (60 percent polished) and daiginjo-shu (50 percent polished) can be used for either honjozo or junmai premium sake.

One of the oldest beverages in the world, sake is a drink to be shared with friends and family. With more Americans trying rice wine in little porcelain cups, it is the perfect sipper for your patio this summer. Kampai.

Marianne Frantz, CWE and founder of the Cleveland Wine School, is joined by Scott Kim from Matsu in selecting wines for this month's Cellar Notes.

Interested in sampling summer sake? Try the sake tasting at Matsu Japanese Restaurant in Shaker Heights with owner Scott Kim, a sake connoisseur. His informative tasting guide and knowledgeable staff will help you every step of the way. Best of all, you can purchase hard-to-find bottles for carryout.

Ozeki Ginjo Premier, Junmai Ginjo ($13.95, 375- ml bottle): Dry, crisp and refreshing. Full bodied with citrus fruit and wine-like bouquet.

Ozeki Nigori ($12, 375-ml bottle): Sweet unfiltered (Nigori). Full bodied with a creamy texture and milky color. Sweet like dessert. Think rice pudding.

Ohtouka Namasake ($19.95, 300-ml bottle): Slightly sweet with smooth citrus aroma. Namasake means unpasteurized.

Kaguyahime Junmai ($32.95, 500-ml bottle): Medium dry. Light bodied with smooth texture and mild fruit aromas of mango.

Kinpaku, Junmai ($44.95, 270-ml bottle): Dry. Medium bodied with a long finish and fruit aromas. Gold flakes in the wine make it visually chic.

Kukon Dai Ginjo ($70, 720-ml bottle): Smooth, extra-premium sake made from highly polished rice.

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