Regionality in sake

Sake “Appellations”: Regional Distinction in the Sake World

Does sake have regional character, or “regionality?”

Indeed, it does, but it is not nearly as clearly expressed as that of the wine world. Many prefectures have very apparent regional styles, yet some prefectures have none to speak of, i.e. no real thread of similarity running through the sake of the region (even if much of it is wonderful sake in its own right). But there are enough tendencies and general regional styles to make it interesting and worth studying.

What affects and/or detracts from regionality in sake?

Within a given region that exhibits a regional style, perhaps 60 to 70% of the sake in that region conform to this style; the rest may be slightly different or at times completely so. While 60% is barely a passing grade, it is not enough upon which to base one’s study of the sake world, as is often the case when studying wine, and it leaves the door open for massive vagary, making it all so much more interesting.

The factors that affect regionality include of course the raw materials (rice, water), the climate, the traditional cuisine of the region, and the guild of toji closest to the region. Those things that detract from regionality include the converging and overly similar profiles of ginjo-shu, modern market demands and infrastructure, no INAO-type or AOC-type appellation laws, and of course, the fact that rice can easily be shipped, and indeed is routinely shipped far from its region of origin, which is a function of the nature of the raw materials.

Note, many prefectures are trying now to go back toward defining regional style with locally grown rice, yeast and other things. Also, there is no way the industry could practically go back to stricter laws, even if they wanted to do so. Note, too, that regional distinction is often more evident in lower grades of sake.

As a very general rule of thumb…

Looking at Japan, it appears to run kind of north-to-south yet kind of east-to-west. Bearing that in mind, sake flavor profiles tend to be tight, compact, and fine grained in the north-east, and as one moves further and further south and west, the flavor profiles get wide, broad, and fat. (There are also those that say sake is dry in the east and sweet in the west, but this rule holds true even less often.)

Note, too, that there are plenty of exceptions in terms of entire prefectures having styles that do not fit the region, and plenty of breweries within any prefecture that do not fit that prefecture’s assumed style. And, furthermore, there are a good dollop of regions that have no consistent style running through them.

So while the above holds true to some degree, and is worth remembering, always remember it is but a big generalization, and exceptions of every kind abound.

Styles of Important Regions

The main sake producing regions (in order of volume brewed) are:

  1. Nada. One third of all sake in Japan comes from this district of the city of Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture. Most of the big brewers are there. Why? Historically, great water for brewing and a port for shipping to Tokyo (called Edo back then). Nada sake is generally dryer, sturdy, even-keeled, not so aromatic, masculine.
  2. Fushimi, part of Kyoto city in Kyoto Prefecture. Gekkeikan, the biggest brewer on earth (actually, they might be number two now), is headquartered there. Good water and proximity by train to Tokyo. Soft, slightly sweet, mildly fragrant, elegant. Feminine.
  3. Niigata. Snowy, good rice, lots of mountains with clear water, and a great bunch of master brewers (toji). Very famous for very pristine, clean, dry sake. Perhaps the most popular place for sake brewing in Japan.
  4. Akita. Lots of coal miners 100 years ago, and tons of great rice led to them becoming a sake prefecture. Tight, compact but very well brewed and balanced sake with fine lines of distinction.
  5. Hiroshima. Soft, excellent water. Historically Hiroshima is an important sake prefecture, long famous for quality and technological developments. Soft, slightly sweet sake overall.
  6. Fukushima. Good water and excellent rice. Overall soft and billowing, subtle sake flavors, but really, there are a relatively wide variety of styles from this prefecture, with its three distinctly different climates.

Other prefectures worth remembering for the quality of their sake, if not quantity:

  • Nagano: Soft, light, often fragrant and very approachable
  • Shizuoka: lively, low acid, very easy to drink. Great with fresh fish
  • Kochi: very dry but with backbone
  • Miyagi: Similar to Shizuoka, lively, low acid, very easy to drink. Great with fresh fish
  • Shimane: Nutty, perfect acidity, slightly sweet aromas, often with pumpkin-like notes
  • Yamagata: Hard to nail down a style, but overall flavorful and fragrant, yet reigned in
  • Fukuoka: Big, rice-like flavors, but controlled and deliberate, with moderate aromas
  • Okayama: sweet and full, usually, but with exception

Remember that every prefecture except Kagoshima brews some sake; most have at least a little regional distinction, but not all do. And now for some fun with this…

Regionality in Sake and Quantum Physics

A basic premise of quantum physics is that at the quantum level, energy comes in the dual manifestation of waves and particles. In other words, depending upon how you measure it, energy can behave as if it comes in waves, or it can behave as if it comes in particles. While it should be one or the other, at the quantum mechanical level, it seems to be both at the same time.

There are “waves” too of generalities that are discernible in assessing the sake of many regions of Japan. For example, the wave of Niigata sake is light, dry and refined, the wave of Hiroshima sake is soft and sweet, and the wave of Nada sake is solid and masculine.

However, many of these factors have changed over the decades, along with changes in society and infrastructure. Local food is no longer limited to what was eaten 100 years ago, and the local townsfolk are no longer the only market for any kura. Also, unlike the wine world, sake brewers are not limited to using only local rice. And in fact, very often rice is shipped from one region to another. While this may lead to better sake in more places, it is certainly a chink in the armor of the concept of regional distinction. (Remember the “60 to 70 percent” rule.)

Also, with technological developments and their availability to all brewers, as well as the increasing need for product differentiation among good sake, many kura are producing sake that is unique, and decidedly unlike traditional local styles. The individuality and personal preferences of brewers themselves also have much more room to be expressed than was feasible long ago. And naturally, the media has done its part to extol the virtues and reputations of various producers and products from around the country as well.

What all this has led to over the past few decades is individual kura becoming well known for the sake they brew, irregardless of whether or not it is representative of region, or what that regional style might be. Many consumers no longer look for or ask for sake by region, but rather by producer. Erstwhile, consumers and aficionados might have felt and spoken about liking the sake of a particular region, but more often than not this has migrated toward a list of producers with identity and character that are mutually exclusive of region.

And this, as you have likely already guessed, is the particle aspect of the admittedly tenuous tie between sake and quantum physics. In other words, especially over the last quarter century, consumers look at a sake map of Japan and see particles, individual sake and breweries, rather than waves of regional style.

In truth, the parallels between quantum physics and sake do not run much deeper than that. But my point is not really the comparison of sake with quantum physics. Rather, I am trying to convey that while a few decades ago consumers looked at region first, lately they tend to look at individual producers for their preferences.

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