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Int’l Sake Challenge, Junmai-only Kura

#93

August 2007

International Sake Challenge Results
Generally, I do not use this newsletter to review events that have taken place, but this time it is worthy of an exception. On July 24, in Tokyo, the first International Sake Challenge was held in Tokyo. This unique event served as the best bridge to date between some of the most experienced personages of the wine and sake worlds.

I was approached by the directors of the Japan Wine Challenge, the largest wine competition in Asia. After ten years of doing wine competitions in Japan they wanted to do a sake competition, judged by a panel comprised of both prominent wine judges and prominent sake judges. I readily agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to interact directly with some of the world’s finest wine educators, tasters, and makers, and ensure they all went home with a new understanding of, interest in, and loving fondness for sake.

Of course, we ran into some roadblocks, as my philanthropic motives were not necessarily shared by the countless small and not so small companies thinking “who are these guys, and what’s in it for my company and my sake?” Natural enough. But with the clandestine help of a few folks, in particular one brewer (coincidentally referred to in the June 2007 issue of this newsletter as “my mole, a brewer that moves in many administrative and government-esque circles”), we managed to rouse the industry and gather almost 300 submissions.

The 300 were subject to two rounds of tasting – no retreat; no surrender – by 30 judges, all blind. (The tastings; not the judges.) The subsequent scores led to awards of gold, silver, bronze and seal of approval. It all went fairly well for a first year, very hybrid event run across two cultures and two vastly different judging methodologies. A few technical snafus, but all in all a success.

There were some adjustments to be made by both sides, the international crew and the Japanese side too. Usually, in Japan sake is judged using a painfully simple five point system, with no discussion or interaction between judges. International wine competitions use 20-point systems with discussion between judges to rectify overly large divergences. The ISC was performed using a 20-point system but with no discussion. While it struck a nice balance, it was not without its unwieldy aspects.

Most significant, though, were the judges involved. The international side included Stephen Spurrier, the man behind the infamous 1976 Judgment of Paris, which did a lot for American wines, as well as a handful of directors from the Institute of Masters of Wine, and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Not a dullard of a palate in the bunch.

The Japanese side was equally intimidating (in a good way), led by Haruo Matsuzaki (easily the best palate in the bidness), and several judges with literally decades of experience in government tasting boards. Thrown in for good measure were sake writers, important distributors, and others of like level, all selected for precise and experienced palates.

While much could be written about how the groups compared in the scoring et al, in the end, this fusion of tasting prowess was incredible, and led to surprisingly clear and interesting results.

The results can be found in Japanese at www.sakechallenge.com, and in English at www.sakechallenge.com/data/ISC2007_Final%20Result.pdf. In time, more will published in English in one of several media, including a list of the judges from both sides. Still, it would be anti-climactic if I did not at least list some of the more prominent winning sake here. So, with no further ado…

There were three sake that were far enough ahead of the others in their respective divisions to warrant a “trophy,” sort of a best of class award. These were Nanbu Bijin (Iwate) in the daiginjo class, Garyubai (“Crouching Dragon Plum,” Shizuoka) in the junmai daiginjo class, and Isojiman (also of Shizuoka) in the junmai ginjo division.

One of the biggest winners in terms of decisiveness was Kamotsuru of Hiroshima. They are a large brewing company that has always reminded me that really sterling stuff can come from even mammoth companies. They submitted two daiginjo, and *both* won a gold medal. As if that were not enough, their junmai ginjo won a silver medal as well. I may have been most impressed with this company’s success.

Nanbu Bijin also placed in multiple divisions, with their tokubetsu junmai-shu winning a silver medal.
Other multiple placers include Dassai (Yamaguchi; a silver medal for two junmai daiginjo sakes)
Yoshinogawa (Niigata, a silver for their daiginjo, and a silver for their junmai-shu)
Born (Fukui; a silver medal for two junmai-shu sakes)
Dewazakura (Yamagata, a silver medal for two junmai ginjo sakes *and* a silver for their daiginjo sake).
Finally, irrepressible Yuki no Bosha of Akita had four medals: a gold for their junmai ginjo, a silver for another junmai ginjo, a bronze for their junmai daiginjo and another for their junmai.
While the above results are of course important, perhaps the most important thing that happened throughout the event was that the international judges came to a deeper understanding and awareness of sake and all that it can be. In the words of the esteemed Mr. Spurrier, “It was eye-opening and palate-opening.” As far as yers truly is concerned, Mission Accomplished.

Sakagura Making Only Junmai-shu
In the October 06 issue of this newsletter, I wrote about the “Perceived Stigma of Non-Junmai Sake and Why It is Bunk.” Those interested can read it in depth in the newsletter archives at www.sake-world.com,

But in short it describes the sometimes rabid vitriol directed against non-junmai types of sake, i.e. the added alcohol types, namely (non-junmai) daiginjo, (non-junmai) ginjo, and honjozo, and why it is pretty much silly. In a nutshell, the article points out that at the premium sake levels like those mentioned above, that alcohol is added for very good technical reasons (not just economics), why no one can *always* tell the difference, and why it is silly to diss such sake as a class, since so much of it is truly, truly wonderful stuff.

Yet, at the same time, it also pointed out that everyone has a right to be a purist, and those that want to insist that only junmai types are real sake are free to do that. After all, without a doubt, junmai types are pure, and indeed more traditional and original, for better or for worse.

And, in truth, stylistically junmai types tend to be fuller, if only because it makes no sense to do the added alcohol thing if you aren’t going to maximize the benefits it can provide, like lightness and more pronounced aromatics. So those that prize flavor over aroma in sake may be predisposed toward junmai as well.

Well, recently, an industry publication put out by a promoter of jumai-only events got up on the soapbox again, bending facts and circumstantial evidence to his end. For example, as many of these folk do, they laud the increase of junmai-shu production over the past few years amidst an environment in which all else is on the decrease. But in fact that is not totally fair since much of that increase is due to rice-only cheap sake, made with a minimum of milling, becoming officially junmai-shu due to a legal change a few years ago. Hype like that. But whatevuh.

As if often the case among such zealots, the focus is more on the technical aspects. I tend to be more interested in hedonistic assessment. Does it taste good to me? Do I instinctively reach out for the stuff? Do I want another glass? If so, how it got that way is inconsequential. Almost, anyway.

However, the article did list up sixteen breweries out of the 1400-odd actively brewing that brew 100% junmai types, i.e. junmai-shu, junmai ginjo-shu, or junmai daiginjo-shu only. This is actually pretty impressive as even those that tout their adherence to traditional junmai-shu styles usually end up making at least a little added-alcohol sake, like futsuu-shu, for the locals that just want a buzz. It is too fiscally tempting not to do so. So the few that adamantly insist on only 100% junmai sake deserve to be respected, whether or not you see the same version of the truth that they do.

And so, for the sake of interest, those breweries (and their prefectures of origin) are listed up here. A few are large, most are small, and a couple are miniscule in their production. But all have got the rice-only religion.
Shinkame (Saitama)
Sato no Homare (Ibaraki)
Kagyu (Kanagawa)
Koshi no Tsukasa (Niigata)
Shinano Tsuru (Nagano)
Kagatobi (Ishikawa)
Born (Fukui)
Kinmei (Shizuoka)
Myo no Hana (Mie)
Soukuu (Kyoto)
Yamatsuru (Nara)
Akishika (Osaka)
Fukunishiki (Hyogo)
Dassai (Yamaguchi)
Otemon & Komagura (Fukuoka)
Shinano Nishiki (Nagano)
Again, for those that are on the fence, just plain interested, or even simply uninformed about the issues, I encourage you to read the archived article from last year, at http://www.sake-world.com/html/sw-2006_8.html. But I reiterate that my opinions are nothing more than that, and being a purist for the sake of it is a very valid position. As is being hedonistic. You make the call for yourself.


Sake Events and Announcements

Much like last month, not much is up in August, as summer is a quiet time in the industry, and pretty much the calm before the storm, a few last minutes of rest for (in particular) the brewing staff.

Sake and Pottery Seminar, Saturday, September 8, 2007
On the evening of Saturday, September 8, 2007, I and Rob Yellin will hold a joint sake and pottery seminar at Takara in the Tokyo International Forum from 6 to 9 in the evening. Those interested can reserve a spot by emailing me.

1ST STATESIDE SAKE PROFESSIONAL COURSE

New York City, August 27, 28, and 29, 2007
Note: the following class is full, and no more applications are being accepted. I list it here for reference, and as a half-baked way of indicating that the course will be held again in the US sometime within the next year, and beyond that there is the Sake Professional Course 08 to be held in Tokyo in January, 2008. As always, anyone interested is encouraged to send me an email.

On August 27, 28 and 29, I will hold the first stateside version of the Sake Professional Course in New York City at the Jolly Hotel Madison at 38th and Madison. The content of this three-day intensive sake course will be identical to that of the Sake Professional Course held each January in Japan, excepting of course the sake brewery visits and evening meals.

The course is geared toward industry professionals wishing to expand their horizons in a thorough manner into the world of sake, and will therefore necessarily be fairly technical in nature, and admittedly somewhat intense. But the course is open to anyone with an interest in sake, and it will certainly be fun! The course lectures and tastings will begin with the utter basics and will thoroughly progress through and cover everything related to sake. There will be an emphasis on empirical experience, with plenty of exposure to a wide range of sake in the tasting sessions throughout the three days.

Each day will provide the environment for a focused, intense and concerted training period, and will consist of classroom sessions on all things sake-related, followed by relevant tasting sessions.

The goal of this course is that no sake stone will be left unturned. Every conceivable sake-related topic will be covered, and each lecture will be complimented and supplanted by a relevant tasting. Participants won’t simply hear about rice type differences and yeast type differences, they will taste them. Students will not only absorb technical data about yamahai, kimoto, nama genshu, aged sake and region-related difference, they will absorb the pertinent flavors and aromas within the related sake as well.

Like its counterpart held in Japan each winter, it will be quite simply the most thorough English-language sake education in existence.

The cost for the three-day class, including all materials and all sake for tasting, is US$750. Participation is limited, and reservations can be made now to secure a seat, with a deposit of half the above amount being due July 15. For a view of the syllabus, please see www.sake-world.com/html/spcny.html. For reservations or inquiries, please send an email to SakeCourseStateside@sake-world.com.

Event management and PR for the above course are being handled by Hanna Lee Communications.

Questions and comments should be directed to John Gauntner. Email John from this link: www.sake-world.com/html/email.html