Cold air blowing down from the Japan Alps. Clear water from rivers of melted snow. Fresh country air. Great rice. When it comes to the basic requirements for brewing good sake, Nagano Prefecture has them all covered.
And it shows in the quality of the sake. Overall, gentle and very easy to drink, fine Nagano sake can also be delicate, complex and fruity. Over the last few years, the general style seems to have moved from mellow to light. Its reputation and market presence are acknowledged all over Japan, both in standard sake and in tasting competitions.
There are about 100 breweries in Nagano, but despite that very high number, the prefecture is eighth on the list in terms of volume produced. The reason lies in the size of the prefecture and its geography. While many of these breweries are located around the three towns of Suwa, Saku and Azumino, sake breweries dot the Nagano countryside everywhere. This creates a very strong local market, but also gives rise to the strange situation in which sake from small breweries are not available even in other parts of the same prefecture.
Indeed, the sake breweries of Nagano Prefecture have, over the last century, contributed an enormous amount to the improvement of nihonshu, most notably, in the field of yeast. The well-known and well-brewed Masumi has two breweries near each other, one of which has the distinction of being the highest (in terms of geographical elevation) sake brewery in the country. More importantly, it was here that Yeast No. 7 was discovered half a century ago. This yeast yields soft, gentle and mildly fragrant sake and may be the single most widely used yeast in Japan. (With the new-yeast frenzy of the past decade, No. 7’s claim to the top spot may technically not be true anymore, but it is certainly close.)
More recently, in 1993, a new, wonderful yeast was discovered and dubbed the Alps Yeast. A truly ginjo yeast, it yields sake with a very full flavor and lots of aromatic acids dancing to give rise to fruity essences. Although brewers outside Nagano sometimes use the Alps Yeast, it is the prefecture’s pride.
Even more significant, in my humble opinion, is the development of the rice Miyama Nishiki. For a prefecture that had no sake rice at all until 1965, they sure have made an impact. Created by crossbreeding in 1978, Miyama is wonderfully resistant to in the cold and is now grown widely in northern Japan. While not as flavorful or fragrant as Yamada Nishiki, sake brewed with Miyama is soft and full, with great background acidity and solid presence.
Being in the same Shin- etsu region as Niigata, sake from Nagano must be very, very good to compete in the new sake-tasting competition each year. Niigata always wins the most gold prizes, but Nagano consistently takes second place in the region and typically fifth or sixth in the country. Good competition helps them raise the level of the game, it seems.
Then there are traditions of the toji (head brewers). Until the early Showa Era, most toji were from other prefectures, like Hiroshima and Hyogo. But Nagano felt the need to cultivate their own toji, and three different guilds came into being. The largest, Suwa toji, populate the majority of breweries in Nagano.
Some Nagano sake to look out for include Masumi in all its manifestations; Yoakemae; diverse and popular Maihime; and uniquely flavored Reijin. (Reijin also makes a decent range of aged sake, and although they’re somewhat harder to find, they are very interesting.) Also, Chikuho, Daishinshu and Meikyoshisui are three that I particularly enjoy.
In general, Nagano sake seems to be fairly well distributed; most should be fairly easy to find. A sake with both discernible threads of regional distinction as well as variety of flavor, Nagano sake makes for wonderful, studious sipping.
The Ginjoshu Kyokai will hold its semiannual sake tasting on Oct. 24, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. Here, you can taste upward of 400 wonderful sake for only 4,000 yen, and you get a bottle as a gift to take home. The fall event features more well-rounded, matured sake and less nama-zake than the spring event. You can just show up on the day, but you can also call (03) 3378-1231 (in Japanese) for more information.
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Nanawarai is nicely representative of the region, soft and gentle, but with a well-defined structure and perfectly crafted acidity. Very nice when slightly cooled — nice enough to make you smile seven times. Although this easily found tokubetsu junmaishu is mellow and mild, Nanawarai makes a wide range of products, many of them using the above-described Alps Yeast, which can be lively and fragrant.
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