I stepped through the princely doors of the Milano manor and found myself in the atrium, where
a stream of multilingual voices led my to a studio. The sparse white room was decorated with
kaleidoscopic currents of fabric: suave Italian suits, sleek black dresses, and silken patterned kimonos.
It was the Genuine Education Network‘s first sake degustation, an event to expose Italian sommeliers to
the complexity and artistry of sake.
“Sake” is actually a general term to refer to all “rice wines,” though this in itself is somewhat a
misnomer because the brewing process for sake is more akin to that of beer. Whereas wine
fermentation converts sugars already present in the grape into alcohol, sake (and beer) fermentation
convert starch in the grain to sugars, which then undergo alcoholic fermentation. This process employs
koji, the same fermenting agent responsible for soy sauce, miso, and other traditional Japanese
products. The “rice wine” label is convenient however, because the sensory qualities (smell, taste,
mouthfeel, etc.) of sake is far more similar to wine. As such, it was GEN’s hope to educate sommeliers
in sake’s nuances and thereby promote its consumption alongside, or even in place of wine.
Rather than your typical lecture, GEN took an interactive approach by organizing a blind tasting
of thirty varieties of sake. Each bottle was wrapped in tin foil to obscure its contents, and labeled with a
three digit number. Guests were invited to taste any and all of the sake they desired, and note the
perceived quality, preference, and how likely they were to offer this sake to their “clients” on a scale.
Not all guests were sommeliers or restauranteurs, so this last question spurred the imagination a bit, but
it also encouraged us to think critically about this beverage that had been so longfar unappreciated in
What’s more, a central round table offered an array of typical Italian products: prosciutto,
parmesan, anchovies, gorgonzola, and at least ten varieties of aged balsamic vinegar. Guests were
encouraged to taste these alongside their sake and choose what they believed to be the best pairing. In
my humble opinion, the sake with umami notes (soy/miso) and higher alcohol content went best with
salty or fatty foods (like parmesan or anchovies), while the more delicate, fruity sake paired nicely with
spiced jams or the nutty prosciutto. As Jean Jacques Bacci (Corsican sake exporter and connoisseur)
explained, the unique aspect of sake production is that it is not the terroir or varietal that lends these
unique aromas and flavors to each sake, as with wine. Rather it is the water, and the production
techniques that give rise to such diversity. Accordingly sake is categorized by how it is made.
After uncounted nips of this exquisitely varied libation, the room was abuzz with professionals
and laymen like myself sharing opinions. The sparkling sake was opened, and the names and styles of
sake revealed. Some were “raw” or unpasteurized, some were unfiltered, with an opaque milky color
and coconut aromas, some were aged in casks (one as long as eight years!). As guests repeated the
rounds to retaste favorites, or reexamine revealed styles, the chefs (both students from the University of
Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont) brought out some traditional and unconventional Japanese-style
First there was a dip made of sakekasu, the rice “mash” leftover after brewing sake which has a
sweet and earthy flavor, accompanied of course by rice crackers. Then there were tempura fritters of
acacia and elderflowers. This dish perfectly represented the Italo-Japanese gastronomic exchange that
GEN fosters through its educational programs because the age-old tradition of battering and frying
these flowers is distinctly Italian, but the tempura batter and artful presentation were wholly Japanese.
The sweet-savory balance of these fried treats paired perfectly with many of the sake as well; their
oiliness cut through the slight alcoholic burn of the strongest sake, and the floral sweetness
accompanied the more delicate.
Photo by JP HOME
Foro Buonaparte 55
20121 Milan, Italy