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Wine Challenge brings sake contest to Japan

by Melinda Joe

At 9 a.m. on the morning of May 28, the 40 judges who had been invited to arbitrate in the 2012 International Wine Challenge sake competition convened in the Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association building in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district. Conversations in English and Japanese floated around the room as the judges — who represented 12 countries in Asia, Europe and North America — sipped their coffee and mentally prepared for the task ahead: the tasting and evaluation of 689 sakes over the course of two days.

The number of entries marked a record high (up from 468 in 2011) for the International Wine Challenge’s sake division. Credited as one of the most influential wine contests in the world, the IWC created a category for sake in 2006, and the event has become the largest sake competition outside of Japan. Although the assessment traditionally takes place in Britain, the organizers decided to hold the sake judging in Tokyo this year, due to import restrictions placed on food products and beverages from Japan following the nuclear disaster last March. (Sake was recently exempted from the restrictions.)

As a new judge myself, I was nervous but excited. We were divided into mixed panels of Japanese and non-Japanese judges, and the members in each had to reach a consensus before delivering the group’s assessment. The IWC took this idea from the wine world; at most sake competitions, judges instead submit individual point scores that go toward an average.

“We encourage you to share your passion and views on the sake market and inspire each other through discussion,” announced event cochairman Sam Harrop before the start of the first tasting session.

On the first day, each panel whizzed through roughly 100 sakes (in case you’re wondering, professional tasting does not involve ingesting the sake). All of the bottles had been wrapped in opaque black bags to ensure that the tasting would be completely blind. In this round, judges determined whether the sake was a potential medalist, worthy of commendation, or if it shouldn’t be considered for an award at all.

The second day was more of a challenge. Although there were fewer brews to sample, we needed to decide which sakes deserved gold, silver and bronze medals, and were asked to write tasting notes for each entry. As if that weren’t hard enough, some of the sakes that had been initially tossed out were stealthily reintroduced to test our consistency. The final decisions rested with the three cochairmen and seven panel leaders.

The diversity within the groups facilitated lively debate. Western palates, in general, tended to favor bolder, richer styles, while Japanese tastes gravitated toward more subtlety.

“The Japanese usually like a more slender flavor profile,” Los Angeles-based sake sommelier Yuji Matsumoto explained. “If the sake has a very strong character, they may feel it’s too easy to understand. Remember that in Japanese culture, not standing out is considered a virtue.”

I noticed this tendency more among Japanese of a certain age. The generation that experienced the ginjō-shu boom in the 1980s is more likely to measure sake against its textbook ideal.

Professional experience, too, greatly influences taste preferences. “I think being from a wine (rather than sake) background makes a bigger difference than cultural background. Wine people are extremely sensitive to things like oxidation,” sake educator John Gauntner told me. Wine professionals focus primarily on acidity, sweetness and astringency, whereas sake experts give extra consideration to umami and bitterness. Wine sommeliers also pay closer attention to food-pairing possibilities.

The point of seeking out a variety of opinions is to get results that reflect the tastes of sake’s growing global market — a timely idea, in light of the Japanese government’s recent campaign to boost sake sales overseas. Prior to the event, Minister for National Policy Motohisa Furukawa met with IWC Event Director Chris Ashton, sake division cochairmen Harrop, Kenichi Ohashi and Simon Hofstra, and a small group of judges, to voice the government’s intention to increase support for sake producers that wish to export.

Prizes were awarded in five categories: honjōzō; ginjō and daiginjō; junmai-shu; junmai-ginjō and junmai-daiginjō; and kōshū (aged sake). This year’s results yielded 266 medal-winners. Among the 22 gold medalists are Honshu Ichi Muroka Junmai-shu (Hiroshima Prefecture), Yuki no Bosha Hiden Yamahai (Akita Prefecture) and Koshi no Homare (Niigata Prefecture). The champion sake will be announced at the IWC awards dinner in London on Sept. 11.

Plans are in place to hold a tasting event in Tokyo this November that will showcase medal-winning sake and wine. Sake judging, though, will likely resume in the U.K. now that import restrictions have been lifted.

“We won’t rule out coming back in the future, or even taking the judging somewhere else,” added Andrew Reed, managing director of events and exhibitions for William Reed Business Media, Ltd, which produces the IWC. “The options are open.”

Wherever they decide to have it next year, I’ll be there.

Results can be viewed on the IWC website: www.internationalwinechallenge.com. Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.