Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Elemental Beauty of Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo

Snowflakes are one of nature's most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.
--Vista M. Kelly

Snow is Sake's friend. 

Consider that the traditional Sake brewing season starts in October and it's said that the best Sake, like most Daiginjo, is made during the coldest, snowiest months. Some of the snowiest prefectures of Japan are considered to be the best regions for Sake. For example, the snowy prefecture of Niigata, with over 90 breweries, is one of the most popular Japanese regions for the production of Sake. Located in Niigata, the Hakkaisan Brewery is using the copious snowfall in a rather unique way, to assist in the maturation of a Sake.

Hakkaisan Brewery, which was founded in 1922, is located in the city of Minami-Uonuma, which is nestled in a valley known as Yukiguni, Snow Country, due to its heavy snowfall. At the foot of Mount Hakkai, within Minami-Uonuma, the snow can be as much as nine feet deep. The brewery has a water pipe at the foot of Mount Hakkai, bringing in Raidensama no mizu, "spring water from Raiden," which is a super-soft water and excellent for Sake production. Raiden is the Japanese god of thunder and lightning.

One of their newest releases is the Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years ($60), which is pictured above, the pure white bottle intended to reflect the nature of pure snow. I was sent a media sample of this Sake, which certainly intrigued me when I was informed of its nature. I had some questions about the Sake, which were initially directed to Timothy Sullivan, a Sake Samurai, Certified International Sake Sommelier (SSI), and the founder of Urban Sake. Timothy is also the Brand Ambassador for Hakkaisan and last November, started a year of working at the brewery and contributing to their blog. Some of my questions, of a more technical nature, had to be forwarded to their Toji, Shigetmitsu Nagumo.

"Be like snow — cold, but beautiful."
--Lana Del Rey

The Hakkaisan Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo 3 Years is special in a number of ways, making it a more unique Sake. First, most Sake is brewed using only a single type of rice but Hakkaisan produces a number of Sakes using two or three different Sake rices, including this Snow-Aged Sake which uses three. Yamada Nishiki, the "King of Sake Rice," is used to make the Koji, so they can "maximize the brewing characteristics of Yamada Nishiki." As the Toji feels the creation of koji is the most important step in Sake brewing, he wants to "emphasize the characteristics of Yamada Nishiki such as the pronounced aromas and softness." For brewing rice, they use a blend of about 80% Gohyakumangoku & 20% Yukinosei, with the Gohyakumangoku providing a light clean flavor and the Yukinosei providing Umami. This blend of three Sake rice types provides them the target flavors they seek.

The brewing rice was polished down to 50%, which technically is the minimum rate for a Daiginjo, though this Sake is labeled as a Ginjo instead. The brewery was aiming to "apply Daiginjo-class production techniques to all levels of our sake in order to improve the overall quality of the sake that people drink everyday." Thus, as part of that intention, this Sake was labeled as a Ginjo rather than a Daiginjo.

As I've mentioned before, aged Sake is rare but this Snow-Aged Sake is one of those exceptions. It is aged for three years in a fascinating place, a Yukimuro, a snow storehouse. Constructed in July 2013, this is an insulated storage room with almost 19,000 square feet of floor space. Within this space are 20 storage tanks, each which can hold 20,000 liters, and the only Sake within those tanks is that intended for their Snow-Aged Junmai Ginjo. Not all of the tanks are filled at any one time.

Besides those twenty tanks, the Yukimuro is also filled with approximately 1000 tons of fresh snow! They gather the snow from the low hills behind the brewery and only need to fill it once a year. By the end of that year, there is about 1/3-2/3 of the amount of snow remaining. This snow will maintain the temperature within the storage tanks at a stable 3-5 degrees Celsius year round. There is also no need for electricity within this building, making it a more eco-friendly solution for aging. Each year, they produce about 400 Koku of this Snow-Aged Sake, which is the rough equivalent of about 10,000 720ml bottles.

What does this snow aging accomplish? Some Sake, usually called Koshu, is aged but not under very low temperatures. That causes the color to change drastically, to darken so it looks more like an old Port or Sherry. It also brings out very different flavors, usually much more earthy elements. However, aging under low temperatures generally does not change the color and it seems to primarily raise the complexity of the Sake. It may also help to mellow and smooth out the Sake.

The Snow-Aged Sake is a Genshu, meaning it is undiluted by water and possesses a 17% ABV. In addition, it has a SMV -1, Acidity 1.5 and Amino Acid 1.3, which won't mean much to many people except you should understand that it has a higher acidity level than similar Sake, meaning it works even better with food pairings.

I shared this bottle with several friends at a dinner party, where all of the food was prepared with Sake, including tomato-bread soup, halibut, rice, and chicken wings. Everyone enjoyed the Hakkaisan and I think it worked very well with the various foods, especially considering its high acidity and rich umami. I found the Hakkaisan to have a more subtle aroma and on the palate presented an elegant, deep complexity with hints of melon and a touch of anise. It was full-bodied and smooth with rich, savory umami. A hedonistic pleasure that is extremely food friendly. It is certainly worth its price and I highly recommend it.

The snow elevated this compelling Sake, providing a deeper, elemental aesthetic to it. 

"Kindness is like snow-it beautifies everything it covers."
--Croft M. Pentz

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