Chaîne Online News

Actualités en ligne / News On-Line

The Chloé Grandpierre Column no7

Kampai (Cheers!)

Personal reflections following a tutored tasting at the first sake exhibition held in Paris, June 2013

Japan has always made me dream. Snow-covered Mount Fuji, 'sakura' cherry blossom spinning around, the clicking chopsticks in order to eat shrimp tempura, the blazing kimonos with the little white socks, the ‘Hello Kitty’ bags of ganguro girls, noh masks which ...

... are scary or funny, sumos who fight in the dust encouraged by the spectators’ screams, Tokyo the city which never stops, Kyoto the historical town with its ancestral traditions, the tea ceremony full of conformism and gentleness, the paintbrush which makes delicate marks on the rice paper and which offers perspectives from another world.

I have to confess that until the tasting described below I didn’t like sake. I have often seen this little glass offered as a goodwill gesture in an Asian restaurant offering Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Korean cuisines. However, as a drink I had always dismissed it as alcoholic trickery without any interest.

Well, how wrong one can be! I soon discovered that the sake on offer at the tasting was far removed from the supermarket cereal plonk that had been served to me with a fortune cookie!

Sake consumption is on the increase. It is becoming an alcoholic drink which teases more and more tasters. Recent evidence of this new-found interest was the first sake exhibition in Paris in June 2013.

Now I can say: I love sake! So I implore you to avoid the pseudo sake. Pay tribute to a quality beverage which requires a unique know-how and is the unification symbol of tradition and modernity.

Sake for the body, Haiku for the heart

Daishichi Sake is one of the most famous in Japan. Hideharu Ohta San is the CEO of the company which has been in existence since 1752. Mr Ohta San courteously welcomed us and presented Ad Blankestijn, a Sake Master (this is quite rare because he is European), who would be tutoring the tasting.

Sake is not really a spirit. We can link this alcohol with beer because there is no distillation but a mash transformation in alcohol with a sugar creation. On the other hand, the alcohol degree is closer to wine than to beer. Synonymous of umami it is the fifth taste (salty, sweetness, acidity and bitterness) and means 'delicious'. Historically sake was only for men and drunk at the Imperial Court.

A sake tasting is like a tasting wine: we are looking for the colour and the ‘tears’ whilst exploring the first impressions on the nose. It is not usual to swirl sake but European professionals are certainly swirling. The tasting begins with a drop of sake in the mouth.

Before talking about this Japanese pearl, let us see how sake is made in the Daishichi brewery.

From the outset, Daishichi aimed to blend tradition with innovation. Located in the city of Nihonmatsu in the north of Japan close to Fukushima, the company does everything to respect a traditional way of production by using the Kimoto method. Kimoto has been passed down from the hands of one generation of master brewers to the next. Now it has begun to attract renewed attention as the authentic method. A painstaking technique, it constitutes the very origin of sake-brewing resulting in a smooth, dry character for the finished product.

The cold climate of the north of Japan is perfect to create sake (the ideal temperature for fermentation is around 9°C). The clear water found in the sparsely populated areas of Honshu is also ideal.

Rice is not like grapes: there are no varietal aromas. It is the water which gives the 'terroir' expression. Moreover, the rice used comes from different parts of Japan. Sake breweries do not have rice fields like wineries have vineyards. There are between 80 and 100 types of sake rice (all of which are different from table rice). The most famous is the Yamada Nishiki produced in the Kobe area.

To create sake first you have to collect the rice. Then you have to ‘polish’ it to remove the proteins from the grain in order to simply retain the heart of pure starch. The polishing determines the sake’s quality. Ginjo (Premium) Sake or Daiginjo (Super Premium) Sake are achieved by intense polishing (minimum 50%).

The next step is to wash the grains. Once the rice is full of water it is then steamed. 20% of the rice will be taken to be sprinkled by Koji spores. In two days, the fungus has developed and covered the rice with its white hair. The enzymes produced by the Koji will transform the starch into sugar.

Finally, the fermentation can take place. The standard method is to mix 20% Koji-transformed rice with 80% of steamed rice then adding lactic acid and yeasts. This stage takes 10 days. The yeasts make the alcohol and the Koji continues to create sugar. Generally the fermentation is at low temperature (10 to 15°C and even less for really good Sake).

Contrary to the standard method which is used by the vast majority of Japanese Sake producers, the Kimoto method used by Daishichi is a complex way to create the lactic acid naturally. Rice is mixed with Koji rice and water. The resulting mash is ground then heated so that lactic bacteria will develop.

The fermentation lasts 30 days compared to the 10 days for the standard method. The yeasts are added around the 15th day and the mash will have cooled down on about day 25 of the process. At the end, the Sake is ‘born’ and then filtered.

There are two types of sake: Junmai which is pure (no alcohol added) or Honjozo where rice alcohol is added.

Now let's see what Daishichi proposes for us!

Yukishibori Nigori (Squeezed snow), Grade Honjozo, 14%
A lightly sparkling sake achieved by allowing a second fermentation in the bottle. Milky in the glass, it looks like coconut milk! Very aromatic with white fruit notes like pear. Reminiscent of fresh steaming rice. Apple comes next with grenadine milk (I know, some of my tasting comments are weird!).

The mouth is fresh and lightly sparkling. I feel tasting notes of rice with sweetness. Apple is here again: the yellow apple with its wrinkled skin, the one you have to cook quickly in an apple cake or you will throw away. I also taste something which fermented. It's so fresh! I like it! It's very nice to drink and at the finish a little brioche appears. All is really delicate...   

Masakura (True Cherry Blossom), Grade Junmai Ginjo, 15%
Created with Gohyakumangoku rice, this Sake is totally transparent, the cold is coming up around the glass and is in a fog ! The nose is fresh on fermented flavours. Apple, tea and green apple appear in the second nose... The whole Sake is light, delicate and icy fresh. I have the impression that I smell vanilla ice-cream.

The mouth is also fresh with milky chocolate notes. There is a nice sweetness and I don't smell alcohol. The Lu cookie taste arrives in finish with pear and at the really end a little green olive touch appears. It's really nice! 

Minowamon (The name of the main gate of Nihonmatsu Castle)
Grade Junmai Daiginjo, 15%

Always limpid and transparent, this Sake is created with the famous Yamada Nishiki rice and has a more delicate and discrete nose. There is always this interesting fermented side with a lightly light lemon. Apple again, yellow and ripe with this icy impression. Sweetness is less present as Masakura but finally it appears progressively. The mouth is also discrete, more floral with white peach flavors. The smog of steamed rice surrounds me (quite aromatic) but it's not aggressive. The finish reminds me green olive again!

Horeki (The name of the era in which Daishichi was founded)
Grade Junmai Daiginjo, 16%

Yamada Nishiki gives a transparent and light Sake with ripe apple and mature pineapple notes... I smell less rice flavours but more fruits. The whole Sake is fresher and has more acidity. The mouth is subtle, smooth with acidity. Apple, pineapple, pear. We stay on the same aromas with freshness (nice consistency). Alcohol is slightly stronger and that gives light bitterness at the end. Moreover a saline note appears finally.

Kimoto Umeshu (Plum Sake)
Grade Junmai with superior Nanko Umé plums, 12%

The Gohyakumangoku rice is melted with superior quality plum Nanko Umé, the most famous in Japan. The colour is different: it's a light gold in the glass and the nose is incredible!! It's my crush of the day! I felt in love with this beverage. I smell Morello cherry then almond. No, it's more barley water. Finally, the flesh of prune is the best description. The flesh of an aromatic and juicy prune ... Very gourmand, with acidity and sweetness in the same time.

The second nose confirms the prune flavour. The mouth is delicious. Oh la la!! I think I'm going to have to live in Japan! Acidity and sweetness, the mouth is very well-balanced. I'm tasting a candy. A fresh prune very nice is still there and then vanilla appears. Acidity persists and the prune flesh explodes in the finish. Magical!

Daishichi is creating high quality sake. But a shadow is present: the brewery is not so far from Fukushima, sadly famous for the nuclear accident resulting from the tsunami in 2011.

Daishichi has chosen transparency and explains the measures taken. The head office assures that the production site has not been directly touched by the radiation wave (they are some 60 kilometres from the nuclear power station) but that the initial explosion of hydrogen has probably touched the area.

In order to prevent any contamination high performance filters have been installed in the ventilation system, therefore no dust can enter in the factory. Shutters have been put on the bottling section so that no air from outside can penetrate. Readings are taken every day to verify the radiation content.

As far as the all-important water is concerned, it comes from the underwater spring of Naka Ido. Studies which have been done in Tchernobyl show that radiation is not present in the ground, so the conclusion is that the water is not contaminated. However, a Gemanium detector is used to check for any pollution. Thankfully no anomaly has been found to date. The water used to wash the cellars comes from the town council and is monitored regularly.

In respect of the rice, the varieties used come from regions far away from Fukushima. All the varieties are checked before and after the polishing. The plums also originate far from the nuclear area.

These are the essential measures taken by Daishichi to clean and to keep clean its brewery. It's all explained on their website:

Chloé Grandpierre
Professionnel du Vin