The surreal landscape of the Akiyoshidai Plateau, located in Mine, Yamaguchi Prefecture, a 30-minute drive from Shin-Yamaguchi Station, is a vast swath of grassland dotted with jagged white stones that sprout from the ground like stegosaurus spines.
It sits above Japan’s largest limestone cave, where groundwater flows over the terraced rock layers and absorbs minerals from the limestone, which formed from a coral reef roughly 250 million years ago. The high levels of calcium in the water, explains fifth-generation sake maker Takahiro Nagayama, lend distinctive notes of minerality to the sake he produces at Nagayamahonke Shuzojo.
Until relatively recently, the question of regional identity in sake has been largely unexplored. However, Nagayama aimed to create brews that would express the uniqueness of the terrain when he launched his signature brand, Taka, nearly 20 years ago. For the 44-year-old brewer, that meant focusing on the raw ingredients of water and local rice, rather than brewing techniques.
“For me, it all started with the water. I wanted the sake to be clean, with citrus-like acidity and firm minerality,” he says.
The calcium-rich water he uses for brewing is also used to grow Yamada Nishiki rice on three hectares of land in front of the brewery.
While most brewers purchase sake rice from agricultural co-ops that source grains from all over the country, Nagayama is part of a growing movement of producers who take cues from the wine world by using local rice, and even growing their own.
After two years as an exchange student in Vancouver, he studied at the National Research Institute of Brewing in Hiroshima before taking over the family business in 2001. While researching the effects of different rice strains on sake and grape varietals on wine, he became interested in the concept of terroir — the influence of the natural environment on the flavor of the final product.
Seeking a deeper understanding of the wine industry, Nagayama traveled to Europe in 2007. In France, he fell in love with natural wine and visited iconic producers, such as Philippe Pacalet and Clos de Vougeot, in the Burgundy region. Impressed by the philosophy behind organic and biodynamic agriculture, he wanted to implement similar practices in the sake world.
“There’s a tendency among sake makers to focus on what goes on inside the brewery — machinery and technique — but if you talk solely about that, (even artisan) sake begins to feel like a factory-made product,” Nagayama says. “In the wine world, they talk more about the environment and sustainability.”
He sought out like-minded brewers to exchange ideas on how to grow rice without fertilizer and pesticides. Japan’s hot, humid summers poses substantial challenges to organic farmers. Although Nagayama admits he still uses small amounts of agrichemicals, he recently bought a high-tech weeding machine that will allow him to further curb their use.
“For the sake industry, the move toward sustainability will require a lot of investment, but there’s no other way,” he continues. Nagayama has also purchased a planter and tractor equipped with sensors that allow him to closely monitor weather conditions and soil moisture.
On a recent visit to Nagayamahonke Shuzojo, I sample a lineup of eight diverse brews over a dinner catered by local French restaurant N-3trois. I’m struck by the thread of steely tension that ran through each drink. A limestone minerality was equally present in Nagayama’s 2015 Taka Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo, a supple brew with butterscotch and rice notes, and the just-pressed Taka Tokubetsu Junmai Jikagumi 60 Shinshu, a vivid number with hints of bright citrus.
“More and more brewers in Japan are automating to make mass-produced daiginjō (the highest grade of sake), but I put my heart into making sake that conveys my philosophy — a drink that expresses this environment,” he says, gesturing to the window. “It’s part of the experience of sharing time and food together.”
For more information about Nagayamahonke Shuzojo, visit domainetaka.com.