Friday, July 30, 2010

Wine & Saké Tasting Competitions

Plenty of wine contests and competitions are held all over the world, and wineries often boast about the medals won by their wines. These medals are thought to help boost sales of their wines. Even if a wine does not garner a high score by a top wine critic, they might be able to boast of what gold medals they have won at a local or regional competition.

There is some controversy over the value of these wine contests, as well as the fact there is a large number of these contests. The same wine might fare badly in a several competitions and then win a gold medal in another one. One could argue that these competitions provide a far greater benefit to the wineries than consumers.

In the Saké world, there is a radically different type of competition and maybe the wine community should take notice. The Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyōkai ("National New Saké Tasting Competition”) is an annual, national event which awards medals to the best Sakés. Though there is a significant twist, setting it apart from most, if not all, wine competitions.

Initially, the Japanese Tax Department wanted to ensure the quality of Saké because it provided such a significant revenue. So in 1911, they initiated a Saké competition though only 17 breweries participated. Yet over time, the number of participating breweries grew and grew so that now, most breweries take part. There has been a contest every year except for two exceptions: 1945 (due to WWII) and 1995 (when the National Research Institute of Brewing was moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima). The 100th competition will be held in 2012.

But, as of 2006, the government is no longer associated with this competition. It now continues under a joint effort of several industry organizations.

As for the twist, the Saké submitted to the competition is not the normal Saké produced by the breweries which they sell to consumers. Instead, special Saké is brewed just for the competition, and such Saké is rarely ever sold. It is produced in very small batches and usually has added distilled alcohol to enhance aromatics. Can you imagine California wineries doing something similar, producing wine just for a contest and not selling it? I very much doubt they would ever participate in such a contest.

There are up to 40 judges, who include toji, brewers, NRIB personnel and official government tasters. They will taste blindly from identical cups. Until recently, all of the Saké entries were tasted together but that has now changed. Now there are two categories, based on the type of rice, Yamada Nishiki and all others. Yamada Nishiki is considered the best of all rices so it was felt it should only be compared to other Sakés made from it.

The judging system is very simple and conducted in two rounds. During the first round, each shinsain ("taster") rates the Saké on a one-to-five scale, with one being the highest score, and they made add some brief comments for the brewer. The top scorers then move onto the second round, where they are then rated on a one-to-three scale. About the top half of those Sakés will receive gold medals, the rest getting silver. Kinsho jushoshu is a "gold prize-winning Saké."

Gold medals are very prestigious, especially if a brewery can win golds over multiple years. But who cares if the winning Sakés are not available for purchase? First, the competition has actually led to some important technical developments in brewing, such as the invention of new yeasts. Second, the contest is an excellent indicator of a toji's skill in being able to produce a Saké within very strict guidelines. Third, it helps to improve a toji's skills.

There is a often a good correlation too between a brewery that wins gold medals, especially in multiple years, and a brewery that produces excellent Saké for sale. As the skill of the toji is so important in the production of Saké, then a toji skilled enough to win multiple gold medals will most likely produce excellent Saké for consumers.

It would be fascinating to see wine competitions similar to these Saké contests. Though I doubt that will happen any time soon, if at all.

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