Sake vs. Wine: A Fresh Perspective

Sake vs. Wine: A Fresh Perspective

This month I took Grape Experience’s WSET Level 1 Sake course.  As a wine educator, this was a fascinating experience, as sake is such a different beverage to wine.  I learned that the sake language, aroma descriptors, and terminology generally don’t apply to wine (there are more overlaps with whisky and beer).

If you’re coming to sake from a wine background – which most people in the class were – it’s refreshing and stimulating having to think about and describe a quality beverage using a different approach. For instance, I consider acidity to be one of the most important factors to the structure and quality of a wine. In sake, acidity is so low that it’s quite a shock, but once I became accustomed to that low acidity I stopped thinking about it so much.

Another difference is that alcohol is higher than wine (at 15-17% ABV), but there is a surprising delicacy to sake that is often lacking in wines at high levels of alcohol. Despite tasting ten sakes, at the end of the day I felt a freshness that I don’t feel after tasting ten wines. Quite why that is I don’t know, but it was something other students commented on.

Umami aromas (found, for example, in mushrooms, tomatoes, or parmesan cheese) are present in wine, but in sake, especially the honjozo and junmai styles, umami aromas are dominant. This makes sake a good pairing with salty food, as umami and salt flavours complement each other. There’s perhaps no surprise in that as sake and seafood is a classic Japanese food pairing.

Sake, though, has huge potential for food pairing beyond traditional Japanese cuisine. On the course, we tasted two sakes (honjozo and ginjo) with different foods: lemon, tomatoes, crisps, parmesan cheese, honey, and soy sauce. It’s rare to find a drink that can stand up to both tomatoes and honey and the only food that the sake struggled to complement was the lemon, its tart acidity overwhelming the low acidity of the drink. But given that lemons are rarely eaten on their own, I didn’t consider that an issue!

This is a great course which I thoroughly enjoyed. It provides an insight into Japanese culture, an overview of sake, and a good idea of the different styles and how they pair with food. Most importantly, it explains why sake tastes like it does, the reasons behind each style, and is a great help for walking into a shop or a restaurant and knowing which sake to buy and why.

The course was taught by Marina Giordano, who is a colleague of mine at Grape Experience. I can say without any prejudice that she is a great tutor with a thorough knowledge of the WSET and of sake. I walked into the course intrigued by sake; I came out of it enthused and knowledgable. I can’t ask for more than that from any course.

Taking WSET Level 1 Sake

Taking WSET Level 1 Sake

A few years ago, I attended a sake tasting in Manchester in the UK at hangingditch, the wine shop where I was then working. It was a fantastic tasting, featuring many different styles of sake. In its range of styles, diversity of food pairings, and salty, sometimes nutty aromas, I discovered a definite similarity to sherry – which just happens to be one of my favourite drinks.

Sake is a Japanese drink made from rice and at that tasting I learnt about how rice affects the style of sake. Milling, or polishing, the rice is central to the style of sake: the more polished the grain, the more delicate the drink. Furthermore, the type of rice used can change the color as can ageing the sake in oak and sake can have different levels of sweetness.

Sake is also a great drink to pair with food – seabream, octopus, eel, and pork were just some of the foods we tried with the different sakes at the tasting. Pairing the right drink with the right food enhances any meal and the diversity of sake makes it an ideal accompaniment to the small, varied dishes served in Japanese restaurants.

Since then however, I haven’t had the chance to further my knowledge of sake. But sake has continued to intrigue me and now I’m taking the day-long WSET Level 1 Sake course with Grape Experience in San Francisco. I’m looking forward to refreshing my limited knowledge of sake and relearning definitions such as honjozo, daiginjo, and junmai. As with wine, knowing what the terms on a label mean allows you to understand the style of sake. Visiting a Japanese restaurant will be a much more rewarding experience as I will be able to choose the ideal sake to pair with the food I’m eating.

I’m also finally going to get to meet Marina Giordano, a fellow Grape Experience Certified Educator whose knowledge of and enthusiasm for sake can be found on twitter and instagram.

The course is on Sunday, 1 October at Roka Akor, 801 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, from 9:00AM-5:00PM with a short multiple choice exam later in the month.  You can enroll at

Matthew Gaughan is a WSET Certified Educator who teaches for Grape Experience and completed the WSET Diploma with Grape Experience.