PARIS, Oct 4, 2007 (AFP) - Nestled among the towering shelves of a top Paris wine merchant, Japanese characters stand out from a dark bottleneck: sake is carving out a place among the clarets and champagne of France's exclusive wine cellars.
On a bright September noon, a dozen wine-tasters and critics mill around a table outside the Caves Legrand, a 19th-century wine cellar tucked away in a glass-covered passageway near the Louvre, swilling glasses of some of Japan's finest rice wine.
Brewed according to a centuries old tradition from polished and fermented rice, more than one million litres of Japan's national drink were exported across the world last year, the majority to Asia and the United States.
France is only the 11th world market for sake, with 130,000 litres imported in 2006.
But brewers are increasingly rolling out top-of-the-range sake in a bid to seduce picky Parisians - already converted to the delights of sushi, sashimi and tempura - away from their wine glasses.
Seiko Lulubell Hirabayashi, the eldest daughter of a family of brewers reaching back 18 generations from the mountains of Nagano province on Japan's main island of Honshu, talks the critics through her ancestors' tradition.
Her family brewery specialises in a high-end type of sake called "ginjo" whose flavour - light and mineral with green, fruity notes - is more akin to a white wine than the rustic, gin-like aroma of a traditional sake.
Sake is made from grains of rice that are whittled down to around two-thirds of their initial size to remove the husk and protein-rich outer layers.
Above: Samples are displayed at a wine shop in Paris, showing the sake-processing
from unrefined rice (right) to polished rice (second from the left) before fermentation.
The grain's smooth, starchy white heart is rinsed, soaked, cooked and fermented with the help of an enzyme called koji-kin, producing a clear beverage with about 16 percent alcohol content.
Much of the sake consumed in Japan - and exported around the world - is a mixture of this basic rice wine, raw alcohol and sugar.
Ginjo is at the other end of the spectrum: it is made from a unique type of rice called Yamada Nishiki, whose grains are reduced to between half and a quarter of their initial size.
It first appeared after 1945, when Japan - traditionally a country of wood, not steel - developed machines capable of such fine polishing.
According to Hirabayashi, ginjo's success in France would bring the wheel full circle.
"Most people used to see sake as a dry, simple, drink - they didn't look for flavour," she said. "But as Japanese consumers discovered imported French wine, they got used to more complex flavours - and they started turning to
more refined sakes."
One of half a dozen high-end Paris cellars to have opened their doors to ginjo - thanks in part to a Japanese in-house oenologist - the Caves Legrand sells about a dozen bottles a month.
But around the corner, a Japanese delicatessen called Isse Workshop is working hard to convert trendy young Parisians to the stuff, as they pop in for takeaway sushi or an after-work Japanese cooking class.
Kei Miyagawa, 45, the workshop's sommelier, readily serves up a selection of ginjo or more refined daiginjo, as well as exclusive dassai - made with rice whittled down to 23 percent of its size - to curious Parisians.
He uses wine glasses - never traditional shallow cups - to reveal the wine's full aroma, and to break the association with cheap after-dinner sake.
"When you speak of sake, most French people think of the thimbleful of very strong alcohol served at the end of a Japanese or Chinese meal. That's why I avoid the word completely - I prefer to speak of ginjo," he says.
"Sake is a niche here, it will never be a mass consumer market," says Miyagawa, who imports ginjo directly from four selected Japanese producers, selling some 400 bottles per month.
The typical French sake drinker is a chic, 30-year-old male, ready to splash out on a bottle whose price can range from 35 to 65 euros (S$73 - 136) as a gift, or to impress friends.
The real growth area is with restaurants, Miyagawa believes.
High-end ginjo is served in no more than 50 of the 600-odd Japanese-style eateries in the Paris region, whose number has soared in the space of five years, according to Miyagawa.
But he is determined sake should not be pigeon-holed to Japanese cuisine: as the perfect meal for a glass of ginjo, he suggests not yaki-zakana - Japanese salt-broiled fish - but braised sea bream with an emulsion of foie gras.