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.

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