Aging & Rice Varieties in Sparkling Sake

The sparkling sake category is like a box of chocolates, full of delicious caramel filled gooey ones and some unfortunate duds, left in the box until the very end. Maybe they’re orange liqueur filled or perhaps it’s the marzipan (which I love by the way) you choose to leave to the very end. Sparkling sake can also be delicious, full of brightness and life and there are…well, some are just tasty or maybe they’re too experimental. 

The Sparkling Sake Association of Japan (Awazake Association) is a group of sake producers who have joined forces to bring cohesion and awareness to this dynamic but confusing category. The Awazake Association (http://www.awasake.or.jp/en/) consists of 15 very forward thinking sake brewers and at the helm of this group is Noriyoshi Nagai, the 6th generation president of Nagai brewery in Gunma and the founding president of the association. He’s been experimenting for years on making traditional method (Champagne method) sparkling sake, with secondary fermentation in bottle, hand riddling and bottling with a cork. Like any innovator, he says “I failed 700 times before we got it right”. 

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We hosted Nagai san and Matsumi san (his export director) in Vancouver for a few days in April where we got to taste the Mizubasho Pure, Nagai brewery’s traditional method sparkling sake made with Yamadanishiki rice. They also make a sparkling sake from Yukihotaka rice (a regionalized variety of Koshihikari rice), which we tasted alongside the Pure. 

In the lineup, we had three sparkling sakes: 1) Mizubasho Pure from the current BY (brew year) 2) Mizubasho Pure from 3 years ago (thanks to Roger Maniwa for sharing!) and 3) Mizubasho Yukihotaka (current). 

Here’s how they were showing:

  1. Mizubasho Pure (current): fresh notes of melon, crisp apples, slightly yeasty and rice-y. Soft but persistent bubbles with good texture on the palate. Very delicate and clean. 
  2. Mizubasho Pure (3 years old): some aged notes on the nose, caramel and oxidation. Less bubbles, drier on the palate and clean finish. Layered and complex. 
  3. Mizubasho Yukihotaka (current): bigger nose, tree fruits and melons. Bigger on the palate with more energy and density. 

*all three are polished to the same percentage and brewed in the same way. 

It’s important to note that the Mizubasho Pure base sake has changed over the years. The sake from 3 years ago used to be made to +3 SMV (sake meter value) while the current Pure is at around -5 SMV. The objective now is to make a more delicate, softer sparkling sake. Personally, I think the drier, aged version could be more interesting for food pairings while the current style is more finessed and is delicious on it’s own or paired with delicate dishes like raw oysters, white seafood or Chawanmushi. The aged Pure would be interesting to try with more intense fish like Aji or dishes seasoned with dashi. 

The Yukihotaka sparkling is made from a localized version of Koshihikari, a very famous eating rice. This rice used to be only available for the Emperor and if you’re in Kawaba village (where Nagai brewery is located) so it’s as fancy as it gets. Nagai san decided he wanted to show the expression of this highly regionalized rice because it’s only available in his village (or the Emperor’s kitchen). It’s the rice he’s chosen to show terroir, a sense of place. We found this sake brighter, with more energy and a richer mouthfeel. Yamadanishiki is easier to polish, with a big shinpaku (starch heart) whereas the Yukihotaka has no shinpaku. This means that there’s more fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins left in the rice when the brewer is using Yukihotaka or any table rice. What you get as a result is more flavour and potentially complexity. 

What we’re going to keep seeing for a while most likely is a large range of styles and continued experimentation in the sparkling sake category. The good news is that they’re getting better and better with more knowledge and science, which can only mean good things for everyone. 

Sake Vintage Charts?

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.

Sake & Wine Terroir

What is sake and wine terroir? Recaredo Cava, Cellar Credo and Sawaya Matsumoto’s ID series were shown alongside at Pidgin on September 26th to highlight the concept of terroir in all forms. 

Recaredo produces biodynamic, grand cru Cava, which express a sense of place and individualism in a category that has been dominated by bigger brands and consistency. The grand cru Serral Del Vell, for example, produces a beautifully balanced, refined and striking wine that has tremendous aging potential. Biodynamic farming practices allow for the personality of the fruit to come through, retaining natural energy in the finished wine. 

These efforts were recognized officially when Spain recently approved 12 Cava grape growing sites in a new top-level classification with the goal of promoting single-vineyard wines. 

Cellar Credo, run by the same team as Recaredo, is a biodynamic winery who aims to give Xarello a stage and show its individuality. A grape that was often seen as “lesser”, the humble Xarello offers texture, an unique savoury and complex profile that is intimately special to this variety and region. The Catalan energy truly shines through in all the wines.  

Finally, Sawaya Matsumoto is a sake brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto with a long history of protecting tradition and breaking barriers. Each of the three ID Series is made with rice from different plots of farms in the same village. These are the sake world’s answer to single-vineyard wines. 

All made with Yamadanishiki from Tojo village in Hyogo prefecture and in the same method, each cuvée expresses the uniqueness of each plot (1314-1, 39-1 and 566). For example, the 39-1 at this time has the most acidity and juiciness. They will continue to evolve over time and show it’s own character. 

For many generations, sake brewers also aimed for consistency and to be able to reproduce the same sake and style year after year. Now, the next generation of brewers are looking to express themselves through their sake. Individualism and expression of the uniqueness of the terroir has become a key theme in some of the best producers of the world, whether we are speaking of Cava, wine or sake. 

WSET Sake Level 1 in Canada!

It’s finally here! Earlier last year, WSET launched the Level 3 Award in Sake and while level 1 was available in test markets in London and the US since this summer, it’s just made it to Canada. I’m teaching it in Vancouver and Toronto in the next couple of months. If you’re in or close to either city, it’s a terrific introduction or review into the beautiful world of sake! Because it’s me, I’ll be covering food pairings with REAL food!

Details below:

Vancouver – The Art Institute of Vancouver is offering a WSET sake level 1 course for the first time in Canada, taught by Mariko Tajiri. It’s a 1-day course on Saturday, January 14th and it’s perfect for anyone who works with sake in restaurants or retail, or those who just want to learn more! Brewing basics, sake service, classifications and food pairings will all be covered.

Date: Saturday, January 14th, 2017
Time: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm
Location: The Art Institute of Vancouver
(2665 Renfrew Street
Vancouver, British Columbia)
Price: $349
Contact: Angela at 604.989.8009 or alandon@aii.edu to book your spot now.

The Art Institute also offers gift certificates for Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers…the gift of learning keeps on giving!

Toronto – This session will be taught at IWEG (Independent Wine Education Guild) and the enriched food and sake pairing component will be delivered by instructor Mariko Tajiri, providing the opportunity to experience key pairing principles through interactive tasting.    Students will have access to the Study Guide upon receipt of tuition and are required to read through the material before attending class in order to be familiar with content and participate in activities.  There will be a short break midday for refreshment. Glassware provided.

Date: Saturday, February 25th, 2017
Time: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
Location: IWEG
(211 Yonge St. Suite 501 Toronto, Ontario)
Price: $360 **Special industry pricing available. Please enquire!
Contact: 416.534.2570

In Defense of Koshu: Vintages, aging & bottle conditioning in Sake

With wine, we often hear about good vintages and bad vintages, or how long a bottle has aged. Now, there’s a new generation of brewers who are taking these ideas to sake.

For centuries, a sake brewer’s skill was said to be their ability to produce the same sake, year after year, no matter the conditions. Good rice, bad rice, wet year, dry year, you had to make a consistent taste. Aged sake, or koshu, has a reputation of being oxidative, funky or misunderstood as ‘unfresh’ sake. Regardless of your opinion of the ‘new breed’ of sake brewers and the sakes they make, there’s clearly some new things happening in the century-old world of sake:

Sake Vintages: there’s two main approaches to sake vintages – declaring the year that the sake was produced or declaring the harvest year of the rice. Since rice is harvested anywhere from September to November but brewing doesn’t usually start until November (not the top-level stuff), there is a difference between the production year and harvest year. Rice harvested in October of 2008 might not be used to brew until early 2009. What these producers are trying to do is show either the difference in rice harvest conditions of that particular year or the difference in aging potential. Some famous breweries doing this include Kuheiji, who declares the rice harvest year and also ages most of his sakes. What he’s trying to do is show the conditions of the growing season, as well as sake’s ability to age. Someone like Yamagata Masamune from Mitobe Brewery, on the other hand, bottles a particularly well made tank of their top-end Akaiwa Omachi Junmai Ginjo into a vintage ‘cuvee’.

Aging: I classify sake aging in two super broad categories, cold and warm. Aging in sub-zero temperatures is a direction we’re starting to see more and more of. It’s usually a Daiginjo, pasteurized only once (to retain the fresh, fruity flavours & aromas) and in bottle. I’ve heard anywhere from 0 to -8 degrees. This really slows down the aging process and really concentrates the flavours. I find that they are very silky on the palate as well. The sakes that are aged in warm or room temperatures are either very highly polished (Daiginjo level) or not very much (Junmai level). I think it’s safe to say that the latter is more common, as aging in warmer temperatures brings out the nutty, earthy flavours that a Junmai sake offers and is highlighted by the aging process. The fats and proteins of the rice are still there and in turn, those are the flavour components, like in the Momotose aged sakes. However, some of my favourite aged sakes are highly polished, like the Kirakucho Hizoshu, polished down to 35%. It’s clean, focused and utterly complex.

Bottle conditioning: this is done often in conjunction with the above methods. Traditionally, at classic breweries, sake was pressed –> pasteurized –> aged in tank –> pasteurized –> bottled. A lot of the new breed brewers are not tank aging or pasteurizing a second time. This can result in more characterful sake. The thought is that by only pasteurizing once, you’re leaving a lot of the flavours (ie. fruit, acidity, some effervescence) that a second pasteurization takes away. Charcoal filtering is another classic technique that removes colour and other aging agents that new breed brewers are opting out of. Why strip colour and flavour out of something you’ve spent a lot of time and effort on?

Try tasting each of these examples of aged sake and see for yourself!

Burt Reynolds & Sake – Water Hardness

Sake nerds are weird people. We get together and talk about yeast numbers and often, how hard the water is. I’m going to indulge my inner geek and talk about this exciting topic…

Water hardness is the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water. These minerals come from rocks, such as limestone that dissolves in the system. Japan, as a country, has generally soft water. The average is 61 mg/L, whereas it’s 120 mg/L for the US. For those of us in the West Coast of Canada, the water is unusually soft, where the source is mostly from mountain lakes fed by glaciers and snowmelt, at around 5 mg/L for Vancouver. Why does this matter to sake?

To put is simply, harder water promotes vigorous fermentation, as calcium is necessary for enzyme activity. This often leads to sakes that are thicker and fuller bodied. It’s suitable for Junmai and Yamahai styles of sake, which have a solid backbone of acidity. Nada, in Kobe, has been traditionally raised as an example of a hard water source. Fushimi, Kyoto, for soft water. Below are examples of water from some of my favourite breweries:

Toronto: 128 mg/L

Vancouver: 5 mg/L

Tengumai: 105 mg/L

Fukumitsuya: 178 mg/L

Hakkaisan: 43 mg/L

Soft water sake has been traditionally called “onna-zake” (“woman sake”) and hard water sake “otoko-zake” (“man sake”). Yes, it’s kind of sexist and gender specific but most of the time, it makes sense. More often than not, hard water sakes are thick and full-bodied, like the Burt Reynolds of sake. And more often than not, soft water sakes are lighter and leaner, like…I’ll leave that to your imagination.

waterThis is a bottle of water I bought at Narita airport and it’s supposedly water from Mt. Fuji. It lists the water hardness, which my inner geek finds super interesting: 32 mg/L. So I imagine that it’s flowed through the mountain a bit, picking up minerals along the way, which is why it’s not super soft.

Water hardness doesn’t tell you everything – there are SO many factors when brewing sake that contribute to the final taste that it can’t just be about the water. But as it makes up 80% of the final product, I think it’s at least worth a thought or two.

Dave Grohl, Justin Bieber & sake

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When I saw Dave Grohl’s Sound City earlier this year, the first thing I thought of was sake. Really. Let me explain…in 1991, Dave Grohl recorded the album Nevermind with Nirvana at Sound City Studios, which was amongst dilapidated warehouses in San Fernando Valley. But at one point, this studio was responsible for some pretty amazing bands and artists, such as Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Tom Petty and of course, Nirvana. When it finally closed in 2011, Dave Grohl bought the Neve 8028 analog mixing console from the studio, one of four in the entire world. He loves this recording device and believes that it brought a certain je ne sais quoi to the music it had a hand in creating. It’s a great film so go and watch it, but basically, he talks about how this mixing console was part of an era when artists couldn’t be so easily auto tuned, chopped up and “fixed” to sound so “perfect”. When drummers got too excited playing, they sped up. Singers voices were flat. Sometimes the sound wasn’t balanced. And this all contributed to the “personality” of the music. Not anymore.sound board

When Justin Bieber’s new album “drops”, no one hears him singing flat or sharp. Nor does he speed up when he’s not meant to. He’s auto tuned to death and there’s not a shadow of character in any of the songs. How does this relate to sake? Here it is:

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Mitobe san from Yamagata Masamune. A young and forward thinking brewer

Sake traditionally gets a few additional treatments after it’s done brewing, which in this fun analogy is equivalent to auto tuning a singer. The first one is 加水 (kasui), 割水(wasui) or basically, adding water. When the brewer is done adding rice, water and koji to the tanks in three stages and the sake is finished brewing, the resulting sake can end up anywhere from 18-20 degrees in alcohol, which is then brought down down to a more palatable level.When there is no water added to the final sake, it’s called genshu. It means that the sake is undiluted (*by law, even genshu sake can be diluted by a maximum of 1%). Almost all sake gets diluted to some degree and it’s not necessarily a negative thing by any means. But there are a new batch of young(ish) sake makers who are rethinking this practice. Instead of adding water at the end, they’re adjusting throughout the brewing process. This results in the final sake finishing at a enjoyable 16-17% alcohol percentage (rather than the 20% it usually is), which in turn means not needing the kasui step, or the dilution, or adjustment. Whatever you want to call it. These new era of sake makers believe that adjusting the alcohol at the end not only dilutes the alcohol percentage but also dilutes flavour, and the personality of the sake. Also, by adding water throughout the process, they say that the water is more incorporated and integrated into the sake.

The second is charcoal filtering and again, most breweries do this. It’s a step that takes out any colour that might be in the sake. Clear sake has been associated with purity and the notion is important to the Japanese culture. So brewers use charcoal to filter the colour out, even if it’s only slightly green/gold. The sake it stripped clear to look clean and pure, except unfortunately, it can also be stripped of flavours. Again, like a auto tuned voice or a guitar riff that’s been edited to be perfectly in time. The new sake thinkers are refusing to charcoal filter, challenging the common belief that sake needs to be crystal clear. What’s wrong with a little colour in your glass?

** 2018 update: there are various levels of charcoal filtering that can be utilized. Not all charcoal filtered sakes are devoid of flavour or character but you do tend to see more restrained results. Like a crisp, clean Pilsner, the best versions of charcoal filtered sakes can be balanced, pure and very drinkable.

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Kuheiji sakes – many sake experts agree that this brand had a huge role in changing what people thought sake should be

 

The third and last is pasteurization. Historically, breweries pasteurize twice. Once before the finished sake goes into tank for aging and then a second time before bottling. Pasteurizing twice stabilizes the sake, ensuring that it doesn’t change or evolve very easily over time. Often, this is done by heating plates or hot water; some sort of heating element is used. This again, some brewers are thinking now, is sake26making the sake boring and lacking character. What they’re doing instead is right after pressing, the sake is immediately bottled. At this point, the bottles are heated to around 65 degrees celsius, brought immediately down in temperature and then bottle cellared for some time. The cellaring/aging time can be anywhere from 6 month to 2 years, depending on who you you’re talking to and what you’re drinking. By bottling right away, they have to pasteurize in bottle immediately. But this ensures that the sake remains juicy, alive and full of life. A little more Stevie Nicks and a little less Kesha.

** 2018 update: technological advancements in shower pasteurizers (shower heads spray the bottles with warm water, then cold water immediately) and other pasteurization machines have evolved greatly in the last few years. This means that the process is much more efficient and gentle and we end with sake that is concentrated and stopped in time. “Flash pasteurization” is the new narrative.

232776_photoWho are these brewers? There’s a group of them, starting out with brands like Kuheiji, Yamagata Masamune, Jikon, Kozaemon. *full disclosure – these are some of the breweries I represent. But I recommend trying them to see for yourself. Finally, there’s nothing wrong with rocking out to Kesha, Justin Bieber or any of the pop stars. There’s also nothing wrong with sake that has water added, charcoal filtered and pasteurized twice. These can be some of the most well balanced, refined and drinkable sakes out there. Either way, I think it’s important to know what’s going on in the world of sake and how brewers are challenging themselves to be more inventive by challenging the norm to make better sake.