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Different regions, different sake

by Philip Harper

Sake has gone global in recent years and, as might be expected, drinkers new to Japan’s signature beverage often look for parallels with more familiar tipples when choosing what to imbibe.

In particular, many wine drinkers who have strayed into the sake world try to apply their knowledge and expertise of that nectar to sake. They often struggle, however, as they come to terms with sake’s own bottomless complexities. Their musings yield some useful revelations and the occasional brightly colored herring. Time then to consider how — or if — ideas familiar to Western drinkers relate to sake and to debunk a few myths in the process.

Notions of terroir

Let the wine people in and out comes the French terminology. Terroir is the notion that geological and climatic conditions give wine from a specific location a unique character. There are some terroir parallels in the climatic and geological factors that distinguish different rice growing regions. (Not all of them are environmental: A brewery owner of my acquaintance gives a paddy-by-paddy commentary, noting the quality of rice to be expected, partly because of the make up of the soil, but also the character faults of individual farmers, which he describes in unforgiving detail.) Whereas the quality and variety of grapes, and therefore the conditions in which they are grown, are decisive in the wine world, other factors put the importance of rice (and rice variety) several rungs lower on the sake drinker’s ladder.

Put simply, grapes are turned more or less directly into wine, but rice undergoes a fundamental transformation in the sake brewery — before fermentation even begins. When you next enjoy a glass of sake, raise your cup to the miraculous fungus koji, without which life would be less delicious. The improbably handy mold, grown on steamed rice, produces enzymes which break the starchy, indigestible raw material into a form which can be fermented by yeast. This crucial metamorphosis acts as a filter, obscuring the genuine correlation between the character of the year’s rice and the quality of the finished sake.

As agricultural products go, rice is durable and relatively easy to transport. Historically, it was not only a measure (and constituent) of wealth, it was also the tender in which taxes were levied — not a purpose to which grapes would lend themselves.

For me as a sake brewer, the portable nature of rice means that I can choose to use rice strains from distant regions. Some breweries and sake drinkers insist on 100 percent locally grown rice: others are pleased to bring in some or all of their supplies from distant growing areas, short-circuiting the terroir idea in this context.

For wine folks trying to apply terroir concepts to sake, water offers much food for thought. Great brewing centers grew up near sources of fine, plentiful water — a familiar theme to beer or whisky lovers, if not to wine people. Some areas are renowned for hard water (lending itself to the brewing of crisp, dry sake), others for the gentle textures of soft water brews.

The pre-eminent brewing district of Nada in Hyogo Prefecture is the quintessential hard water region. The area’s brewing fraternity controls and guards the wells, making it relatively safe to talk about Miyamizu, the famous Nada water, as a distinct single entity. But in most of the sake world, it is easy to exaggerate the importance of regionality on water quality, since this is such a minutely varying factor.

In terms of the sake made by a specific brewery, the character of the brewing water and the way the koji is made are two decisive elements. Yet, unlike the grape variety of a wine, neither of these key factors is visible to the questing drinker in the form of quantifiable information on the label.

Climate: the big picture

The technical business of sake brewing is all about temperature control. Yeast is extremely sensitive to temperature, and a difference of even a few degrees in temperature affects the flavor and color of the sake as it matures. As a result, sake made in cold places tastes different from that from milder regions.

The first master brewer I worked for (in the early 1990s) was from the Tajima district in Hyogo Prefecture: the indefatigable depth of flavor of his sake was born of the Kansai climate, where rich sake is a result of the moderate winters and deeper flavors emerge as it ages through the hot summers.

I have also brewed with toji (the chief sake brewer) from the Nanbu brewers guild from Iwate Prefecture, way up north. Ferment and store your sake at lower temperatures and you end up with a delicate, fine-lined style of sake — exactly that in which the Nanbu brewers excel.

Brewer’s rice strains from western Japan tend to be softer and give fuller flavored sake than varieties which thrive in colder, northern regions, reinforcing the geographical flavor trends.

I always enjoy this elemental contrast between sake that comes from warm places and that from up north. But I have also had a great deal of fun pondering — and drinking — the exceptions. Regional factors of sake style have never been formally regulated in the manner of French appellations, making the business of appreciating sake a most fuzzy, organic, and, dare I say it, quintessentially Japanese enterprise.

Philip Harper is the author of “The Book of Sake: A Connoisseur’s Guide,” published in 2006 by Kodansha International.

Personal preferences

Which is better? That will depend on the sake in question and your personal preferences. Still, I would give you good odds that if you do the same experiment twice with a big, fat, ricey Kansai sake, and a light and limpid sake from the Tohoku region, the rich flavor of the western sake will lose nothing from a bit of time and temperature, whereas the crisp lines of the northern contender will be more themselves if kept nearer the bitter cold of the region that bore them.