Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Niigata, Obata Shuzo & Sake

The Niigata Prefecture of Japan is well known for producing excellent Sake, with its climate, rice, water, and people all contributing to the quality of their brew. The prefecture has many sunny, warm days in the summer, conducive to rice growing, and many snowy days in the winter, conducive to brewing. The brewers usually use rice that was grown in Niigata and have also invested much in developing new and better varieties. The water in Niigata is usually soft, excellent for brewing.

The Echigo Toji, or Guild of Niigata Master Sake Brewers, are very talented and knowledgeable, renowned throughout Japan. If you see the term Echigo on a Sake label, it usually is an indicator that the Sake is from Niigata. The prefecture has around 96 breweries, the second most of any prefecture, and their annual production places them in third place. However, they excel in making premium Sake and about 62% of their production is premium, compared to the national average of 26%. In addition, their per-capita Sake consumption is 18 liters, higher than the national average of 7 liters and the highest in Japan.

A significant portion of the Sake made in Niigata is produced in the traditional Niigata style, described as tanrei. This term loosely translates as "clean, smooth, and gentle" and refers to a smooth, easy drinking Sake which is sure to please those new to Sake as well as long time Sake lovers. It is a style I very much enjoy.

Obata Shuzo is a Sake brewery, founded in 1892 by Yososaku Obata, and located on Sado Island in the Niigata Prefecture. The island, because of its remoteness, was once a destination for political exiles. Exile was a severe punishment, second only to execution, and once you ended up on the island, you were likely there for the rest of your life. In modern times, Sado Island has been in the forefront of wildlife and nature conservation. For example, they have devoted much effort to protect and conserve the Toki, the Japanese Crested Ibis, which is extinct in the wild but was successfully bred on the island. There are about six Sake breweries situated on Sado Island.

The Obata kura, sake brewery, is still owned by the Obata family and their family crest is Four Diamonds, each which represents an element crucial to Sake brewing. These elements include rice, water, humans, and climate/nature. Their motto is "to brew sake where the four treasures may work harmoniously." Their goal is to make well balanced Sake and they produce only about 120,000 bottles annually.

At a local wine shop, I bought two Sakes from Obata Shuzo as I had never tasted any of their brews before and I was pleased that I had done so as both were pleasing and tasty.

The Obata Manotsuru "Crane" Junmai (about $15/300ml), which is pictured at the top of the post, has an origami red crane, which is a symbol of good luck. It is made with Koshiibuki rice, which was milled down to 65%, and has a Sake Meter Value of +6 to +8, meaning it is more on the dry side. This was a crisp, smooth and clean Sake with flavors of melon and peach. It had a rich mouth feel and the finish was long and satisfying. A pleasant, easy drinking Sake which would pair well with a variety of foods. It would be an excellent introductory Sake. This is the type of Sake you could easily drink all night.

The Obata Manotsuru "Bulzai" Ginjo (about $15/300ml) was more intriguing. It is made with Gohyakumangoku rice, which was milled down to 55%, and has a Sake Meter Value of +6 to +8, meaning it is more on the dry side. It is also a namachozo Sake, which means it is pasteurized only once, during the bottling stage. It is lighter than the Crane and has more of a liveliness in the taste, which possesses more tropical fruit flavors with mineral notes. There is plenty of complexity in the taste and a lengthy, pleasing finish. With more character to it, I preferred this to the Crane, though I still enjoyed the Crane very much. This Sake would still appeal to newcomers but Sake lovers will especially appreciate it.


Erica said...

Hi Richard, Where can I find the crane? I love Sake and recently spent three weeks in Japan, whilst there I visited a number of breweries and find great sake harder to find in Boston. I've had some luck, is there a particular shop you'd recommend?

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Erica:
I got my crane at Wine Sense in Andover. But it could be ordered from any wine store in MA. For stores with a decent Sake selection, try Reliable Market in Union Square or Urban Grape in Chestnut Hill/South End. Other stores have smaller selections, though they could order Sake if you knew what you wanted.

Erica said...

Domo arigato gozaimashita sensei Auffrey:-) I love Reliable but keeping meaning to try the Urban Grape.This is a prefect opportunity.