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.

Sawaya Matsumoto – Terroir in a Bottle

Sawaya Matsumoto was established in 1791 in the historic Fushimi ward in Kyoto. Hidehiko Matsumoto, the current Toji is a young visionary with a passion for showing what he can express with the simplicity of ingredients: rice, water and koji. 

His philosophy is that the true value of sake is in the rice and where it’s grown, terroir. 

In the last 3 years, Hidehiko has taken many trips to rice farms all over Japan as well as his favourite wine regions such as Burgundy and Champagne, visiting domaines and grower Champagne producers. In visiting these places he realized that the ingredients and where they come from are equally important in wine and sake; how, who and where the rice and grapes are grown have a significant impact on the finished product. 

Having worked with many rice varieties such as Yamadanishiki, Gokyakumangoku and Omachi from different farmers and terroirs, he has come to the conclusion that this is true for all varieties. 

With this understanding in mind, he felt at odds with the fact that sake isn’t yet presented in this way. This led him to start the “Shuhari” 守破離 brand within the Matsumoto lineup. 

In 2016, the brand “Shuhari”, which means to protect the past by breaking rules and boundaries, was created to express the terroir and uniqueness of the rice and growers he works with. 

The brewery is working with rice farmers in Hyogo’s top Yamadanishiki sites in the Tojo area to learn rice growing and what makes this region special. Each plot and subplot are looked at separately to try to understand each of the unique terroirs and what they offer to the final sake. The ID series is a project that showcases single plot farms within the Tojo region in Okamoto village. 

This year’s offerings are ID series 1314, 39-1 and 566 and each of the numbers correspond to the address of each of the rice plots. The labels were designed exclusively for this project by Paris based artist Emilie Sarnel.

 

 

 

Hanami – Drinking Ideas

If you’re in Japan in the Spring, there are a few things you should be doing. First, there are the cherry blossoms. Everyone talks about them because they’re like nothing you’ve seen before and you should go see them. Better yet, have a picnic under the blooming trees because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. You can even drink under the trees so there will be people getting horribly drunk. Don’t be one of those.

The second thing you have to do is to have fresh sake. In the spring time breweries are busy pressing their first batches of fresh, juicy nama (unpasteurized) sakes. The first tanks of the season are started around November and they’re ready to press by this time of the year. In Canada, we’re lucky to have three sake producers who all bottle nama sakes so that we can have them all year round. There are also a few available from Japanese breweries that are shipped in specifically for this occasion, so make sure to keep your eyes open for them! They’re only available for a few months.

Lucky for you, you don’t have to choose between the two because you can actually do them together at a hanami. “Hanami 花見” translates to looking at the flowers and it’s a tradition to eat and drink under the trees with friends, family or fellow colleagues. Whether it’s a homemade bento box or a few snacks from the convenience store, make sure you have some beer, sake or maybe even some bubbles.

Unfortunately in Canada, we’re not allowed to drink outside (legally). But I’ve picked a few of my favourites to have under the cherry blossoms in High Park in Toronto or Van Dusen Gardens in Vancouver. A blanket in your living room does the trick too!

Amabuki Strawberry Yeast – from Shiga prefecture in southern Japan, this brewery specializes in using yeast from flowers to brew sake. Are you one of those people not really using their university degree? Sotaro Kinotshita, the president of the brewery, did his degree in sake brewing and his research topic was using yeasts derived from plants, which is precisely what he started doing after he took over with his brother. Pretty, light and juicy, with a soft acidity and freshness that’s unmistakably nama.

Kozaemon Sakura Sake – very lightly cloudy, this roughly filtered sake looks like white sakura petals are falling from the trees. It’s a seasonal sake and is shipped to Vancouver only once a year. Don’t be fooled by the Gokyakumangoku rice, usually known for making sake on the leaner side. Nakashima Brewery’s signature style is bold and personality driven. Never a shy sake! (by allocation)

Somdinou Blanc Jove – made with mostly white Grenache and a splash of Macabeu. Textured, fresh and full of acidity, this wine from the Terra Alta region in Spain is perfect with ceviche, BC spot prawns (if you can wait that long) or some traditional chirashi sushi, which looks more like vinegar rice salad with lots of bright colours.

2005 Hubert Paulet Rosé (Champagne)– I know, I know, it’s a little predictable, rose Champagne and cherry blossoms. But it’s delicious and serious (and seriously delicious) and you need to find yourself a place to pour this lovely Pinot Meunier rose from Rilly-la-Montagne into a red solo cup and maybe some siu mai dumplings and bbq duck for the perfect picnic.