Working in the wine world, we often use vintage charts from top sources like Decanter and Jancis Robinson to look up specific years in wine regions. These reports give us a broad look at the growing seasons in certain areas, which in turn give us insight into how a wine might be showing and how long it may last.
This hasn’t been the case for most sake brewers, as they were expected to make consistent sakes year after year and to adapt to the conditions. If the rice for a particular year was prone to dissolving quickly and easily because of a very hot growing season, brewers had to adjust steps such as rice soaking and steaming times in order to make sure the fermentation didn’t run too quickly.
In the last decade or so, young, curious brewers have started visiting rice growing regions in order to understand how the vintage and growers affect their sake. In a world where brewers used to simply say “this year’s rice is hard and doesn’t melt very well”, we’ve come a long way where they can tell you what happened during the planting season (around May or June) to harvest (September or October). What happens when there is not enough rain when the farmers are planting? How does it affect the soil and how the rice reacts later in the season when it forms the ears?
Brewers can now see why things happen, rather than simply reacting to the condition of the rice and being at Mother Nature’s mercy. Some have even gone as far as growing their own rice on loaned fields from farmers or buying land themselves in an effort to be closer to the process. This has helped them to see the bigger picture and to create the craft sake version of the “farm to bottle” movement. The underlining theme right now within the top breweries and sake brands is now consistently terroir, just as it is in any great wine region of the world.
Of course, adjustments to the brewing techniques and processes’ are still necessary to bring some brand consistency but vintage expression is being accepted and embraced more and more. The understanding is that after all, sake also comes from the earth.
Taka, a sake brand by Takahiro Nagayama in Yamaguchi Prefecture has been experimenting with vintage sakes for a number of years. His vintage Yamahai is clean, elegant and endlessly complex. The bottle aging process brings layers of maturity, not earthy, oxidative notes we often associate with aged sake. Starting with a refined sake is a must, while temperature control during the aging helps the sake to age gracefully. The alcohol, acids and edges melt together, creating a new expression.
He also happens to be a rice specialist, growing Yamadanishiki in his own fields right in front of his brewery. Here, he can see firsthand how the rice growing conditions affect the finished sake. He grows Yamadanishiki rice, considered the “king of sake rice” here in Ube for his Domaine Taka label. They are vintage declared as expected.
The water that the rice plants grow in is the same as his brewing water, one that is rich in limestone, due to the fact that the water source is from the Akiyoshidai plateau, a quasi national park including the Akiyoshido caves, the nation’s largest and longest limestone cave. The water travels through the karst formations, picking up lots of minerals along the way, giving the water it’s signature texture and nutrient concentration.
During our visit to the brewery, Taka-san gave us a quick summary of the key differences between the 2017 and 2018 vintages and what the effect was on his sake. Rice season for Yamadanishiki starts with planting in June and harvest is in October. Key times are planting, flowering, rice ear formation and harvest, all factors that influence how the rice is going to turn out in different ways. The below summary is specific to Taka-san’s own fields in front of his brewery and Yamadanishiki rice. Results are of course unique for each region, rice variety and how the brewer chooses to make their sake.
2017: not enough rain in June, during the planting season. Rain is needed during this time to have sufficient moisture in the soil of the paddies for the seedlings to be planted.
Late summer months (August and September) were very good with enough rain and high temperatures for the rice to develop ample starches.
October was very rough with too much rain and many typhoons. Regions all over Japan were affected with severe storms.
Result: farmers couldn’t harvest until the rain stopped so the rice grains stayed on the plants too long. The harvested rice was watery and dissolved too easily during fermentation. The sake ended up being simple and not suitable for aging. These sakes are easy and pleasurable. Drink soon.
2018: good amount of rain in June while planting. The soil was sufficiently moist, with ideal conditions. Summer months (July and August) were almost too hot for Yamadanishiki while the plants flowered and the rice ears formed. But September was better with cooler temperatures and harvest in October was very good.
As a result Taka san believes the 2018 vintage sakes are overall of better quality and most likely suited for aging.
Rice vintages is a relatively new and somewhat controversial topic in the sake world but it’s a conversation that we are hearing more and more amongst some of the top sake producers in Japan. Whatever your opinion may be, it’s worth keeping your eyes out for vintage sakes to see for yourself.