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Sake is a slightly sweet wine brewed from fermented rice. It is made by combining steamed rice, yeasts and water with koji (a rice that has been cultivated with the mold aspergillus oryzae). The fermented rice is brewed and then processed, filtered and pasteurized. Most sake is aged for at least six months.
There are various grades of sake based on the quality of the wine, as well as the efforts made in the brewing process. Rice is the key to fine sake, as with grapes and fine wine. The better the quality of the rice, the finer the sake. Most Japanese also feel that water is as important to the quality of sake as any other ingredient.
While sake is not aged for very long, those of lesser quality are aged for even shorter periods. Most have an alcohol content between 12% and 16% but alcohol is often added to lesser quality rice wines.
Unlike fine wines, the key to buying a sake is to not buy any that is over a year old. Most that are imported into the U.S. have no added sugar or alcohol, so they are often drier. Ask your wine merchant or at the gourmet market if you are unsure about getting a good product.