Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WBW #55: North vs South--Japanese Style

Geography is important for wine as each region is unique and can impart its own special qualities to wine produced in that area. This is kind of what terroir entails. The theme for Wine Blogging Wednesday #55 has led to an exploration of this concept. The theme of North vs South gave the participants lots of leeway in how to reflect that concept and I took advantage of that leeway.

I chose to compare Saké from two different regions of Japan, one in the north and one more to the south. I made sure the styles were the same, both being Daiginjos, and in addition, they both used the same type of rice, Yamadanishiki. Part of my reason for selecting Saké this was to show its wide diversity as well as show how terroir can apply to Saké too.

There are 47 Prefectures in Japan, which are very roughly like states. All but one of them produces Saké, the other producing Shochu, a distilled liquor. Japan has a variety of climates, soils, and elevations, all dependent where on the island you are located. So it is only logical that these differing conditions may produce different styles of Saké. I put this to the test.

This test compared the Akitabare Suirakuten Daiginjo from the Akita Prefecture with the Kamoshibito Kuheiji Daiginjo from the Aichi Prefecture. Let me begin though by explaining some terms and similarities of these two Sakés.

First, they are both Junmai, "pure Saké," which means they are made with only rice, water, koji and yeast. Nothing else has been added. Second, both use Yamadanishiki rice, considered by many to be the best of all Saké rice strains. Third, they are both Daiginjos, the highest quality level of Saké that exists. At least 50% of the rice grain must have been polished away to qualify for this designation. Now let us compare the prefectures.

The Akita Prefecture is located in northern Honshu, the main island of Japan, and it faces the Sea of Japan in the west. It shares the same latitude as New York. With Akita's many steep and high mountains, the climate usually consists of long winters and short summers. It also has an abundance of pure, crystal clear water that descends from the mountains. Akita is famous for its Saké breweries and its slogan is "Bishu Okoku" or "empire of beautiful Saké." Saké from Akita is said to commonly be "rich and well rounded, yet soft, with a layered, detailed construction."

The Aichi Prefecture is located south of Akita, almost in the center of Honshu and is bordered to the south by the Pacific Ocean. It enjoys a rather a mild climate, and much of the land is taken over by urban sprawl. Saké from Aichi commonly has a more mellow character.

Climate matters with Saké. In general, the Saké brewing season is about from the end of October to the beginning of April. This is because colder weather assists the fermentation process, which needs to occur at lower temperatures. Thus, the colder regions of Japan have a better ability to produce Saké, thus giving an edge to the Akita Prefecture. Brewers in the Aichi Prefecture may have to work a bit harder due to their milder climate. So let us now examine each specific Saké.

The Akitabare Suirakuten Daiginjo ($64.99-720ml) is roughly translated as “Heaven of Tipsy Delight.” Saké names can be so evocative and who cannot love a name like this one? The rice has been polished to 38%, it has an alcohol content of 15-16% and a Saké Meter Value of +4, meaning it tends to be a little bit drier. This Saké was aged for two years after brewing, which is not common.

I found this to have a very mild aroma, maybe a touch of steamed rice and melon. This was a more full-bodied Saké than I expected as many Daiginjos are light and delicate. It was rich with intriguing flavors of melon and marshmallow. It was soft and easy-drinking, something you could easily drink glass after glass. The more you concentrated on the Saké though, you found additional nuances and flavors. Yet they were fleeting and difficult to identify, though quite pleasing. A delicious and interesting Saké which should please many.

The Kamoshibito Kuheiji Daiginjo ($56.99-720 ml) has a bit of a more boring name, which roughly translates as "Kuheiji the sake brewer." It has had its rice polished to 40%, has an alcohol content of 16-17% and a Saké Meter Value of +2, meaning it tends to be more neutral than either dry or sweet. The brewery has a long history, having been founded in 1647. It remains a very traditional brewery.

The nose of Saké was also mild, with maybe a bit of melon. It had a lighter body and was not as rich as the other Daiginjo. It was a mellow drink, with flavors of melon and peach, and a slight hint of bitterness on the finish. Like the other Saké, the more you concentrated, the more you found in your mouth. A complex drink but I did not enjoy it as much as the Akitabare. That is due solely to personal preference and due to any defect in this one. I certainly enjoyed both of them, and think they both reflect their region well, but I simply preferred the Akitabare.

Thanks to Rémy of The Wine Case who chose this intriguing theme.

In addition, if you are interested in purchasing either of these Saké, I suggest you contact Sakaya, the all-Saké store in New York City, where I purchased both of these bottles.


Hiroko and Rick said...

Richard, it is an interesting comparison of two sake. I would say that these are not so much of difference between North and South, but they are the example of different style of sake.

Kamoshibito Kuheiji is a modern and new style. The sake maker Mr. Kuheiji made his sake as to match with non-Japanese food.

Akitabare is more classic style of sake. It has tight and smooth texture with sweetness.


Richard A. said...

Thanks for your informational comments! I am always glad to learn something new about Sake.