Sake has gone global in recent years and, as might be expected, drinkers new to Japan's signature beverage often look for parallels with more familiar tipples when choosing what to imbibe.

In particular, many wine drinkers who have strayed into the sake world try to apply their knowledge and expertise of that nectar to sake. They often struggle, however, as they come to terms with sake's own bottomless complexities. Their musings yield some useful revelations and the occasional brightly colored herring. Time then to consider how — or if — ideas familiar to Western drinkers relate to sake and to debunk a few myths in the process.

Let the wine people in and out comes the French terminology. Terroir is the notion that geological and climatic conditions give wine from a specific location a unique character. There are some terroir parallels in the climatic and geological factors that distinguish different rice growing regions. (Not all of them are environmental: A brewery owner of my acquaintance gives a paddy-by-paddy commentary, noting the quality of rice to be expected, partly because of the make up of the soil, but also the character faults of individual farmers, which he describes in unforgiving detail.) Whereas the quality and variety of grapes, and therefore the conditions in which they are grown, are decisive in the wine world, other factors put the importance of rice (and rice variety) several rungs lower on the sake drinker's ladder.