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.

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

Christmas in Japan = KFC?

The holidays is a time of year when family and friends gather around – what else – food. I grew up with roast beef (my favourite) alongside big bowls of white rice and soy sauce at the dinner table on Christmas Eve. Awkward conversations, ever-so drunken uncles and aunts, everyone’s got memories of this time of year: the good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever your story may be, eating and drinking is probably a part of it.

I’ve seen holiday dinners with pierogies, cabbage rolls, sushi and my favourite, KFC. In Japan, turkeys aren’t easy to find. Turkey legs or breasts maybe, but certainly not the whole bird. In the 1970s, Kentucky Fried Chicken found a way to market the Japanese obsession with all things American during the holidays by promoting buckets of KFC fried chicken as a Christmas treat, along with a snowy-white Christmas cake.

You can pre-order these dinners, which now include a bottle of sparkling wine. Maybe it sounds strange but maybe they were onto something; maybe they were a little ahead of the times, as hipster restaurants have sprung up in some of our favourite hipster neighbourhoods around the world serving up fried chicken and grower-Champagne. Whether you’re a Juke Chicken (YVR), Church’s Chicken or KFC fan, here are a few beverages to accompany your crispy, salty drumstick or two:

Kuheiji Eau du Desir 2015 – not quite sparkling but the way this eccentric brewery pasteurizes the sake leaves a little tingle on the palate. Delicious with a salty, not so spicy fried chicken recipe.

tengumai_yamahai_jikomi_junmai

Tengumai Yamahai Junmai – brewed using the powers of natural fermentation and without adding lactic acid, this sake is salty, mouth-watering  and food-perfect. Drink slightly chilled for lots of acidity and umami. An easy pick for all things fried.

fchp03s05b_l_l

Hubert Paulet Premier Cru 2005 Rose – a grower Champagne producer who sells half their grapes to Billecart-Salmon, this elegant but nervy rose is made up of mostly Chardonnay, with a splash of Pinot Meunier. Fine bubbles with strawberries and soft herbs on the palate goes great with fried chicken knuckles at dim sum.

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.