Text Size:-+
09.16.2007

Dewazakura Dewasansan Nama Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata Prefecture

dewasansan_nama.jpgBy W. Blake Gray

It's easy to taste the difference between wine grapes. But can you taste the difference between strains of rice used in sake?

Often times, no: the unique flavors of different rice strains are purposely minimized in many, if not most, brands of sake.

This week's sake is a rare exception: a sake that allows you to taste how, in this case, Dewasansan rice differs from its genetic parent Omachi, or the most popular premium sake rice, Yamada Nishiki.

Dewazakura makes three junmai ginjos in similar styles, varying only the rice. Tasting them side-by-side is a revelation. The Yamada Nishiki version smells and tastes strongly of fresh bananas, with hints of papaya. The Omachi version is the creamiest of the three, with aromas and flavors of green melon and apple and floral notes. I liked both, but my favorite is the Dewasansan version, for which the tasting notes are listed below.

Such an interesting grouping is not unusual for Dewazakura, which is one of Japan's most creative breweries and has been for more than a century.

Company founder Seijiro Nakano came from a landowning family in Yamagata prefecture. His parents told him to learn to make soy sauce as a profession, but instead he studied to become a sake brewer, starting the company in 1893. He sent his son to study fermentation science at Tokyo University of Agriculture; later, the younger Nakano took over the sales job, peddling and pedaling sake in nearby towns by bicycle.

By 1943, three branches of the Nakano family were making sake in Yamagata. The wartime government ordered two branches to devote themselves to other enterprises; only the newest, smallest branch of the family got to keep brewing.

After the end of World War II, Masumi brewery in Nagano prefecture was considered one of the best sake makers in the country (it's still quite good today, and I'll be writing about some of their sake in a subsequent posting). The current president of Dewazakura is named Masumi Nakano because his father was so grateful to have had the chance to study there.

In 1980, Dewazakura changed the sake world by introducing the first affordable ginjo sake (in which at least 40 percent of the rice is polished away, removing impurities) for consumers. Previously, ginjo sakes had been made purely for competitions. The move jump-started the evolution of sake from a working man's way of getting drunk cheaply to the highly refined, complex, delicious beverage we get drunk expensively from today.

Today Dewazakura is only the 100th largest brewer in Japan, but the second largest in Yamagata. Though he doesn't speak English, Masumi Nakano is very interested in American sake drinkers, who now buy about four percent of his production. Thus he came to the Joy of Sake event in San Francisco last week to pour his company's products and watch people's reactions.

Nakano says Japanese customers are most interested in rare and/or highly regarded sake, while Americans are more likely to try it and make up their own mind.

"Most people in Japan buy sake because somebody says it's good," Nakano said. "People should listen to their own feelings. Something I've learned from the U.S. is to tell people about the feelings we have when making each kind of sake."

Dewazakura is trying to appeal to young drinkers with sparkling sake, and with sake in a can. I respect their creativity, though neither of those products worked for me. But Nakano is a man on a mission.

"Japanese culture is riding on our shoulders," Nakano says. "Sake is one of the best ways to introduce Japanese culture. We became successful because Japanese sake drinkers supported us. Now we want to support Japanese culture internationally."

If only all international outreach were this delicious.

SMV +4
Polishing ratio: 50 percent

Brief glossary:

"Junmai" means that it's made only from rice, water and koji mold: no alcohol is added. "Ginjo" means that at least 40 percent of the rice used to make it has been polished away. At 50 percent, this could be called "Daiginjo," and it's a sign of humility that Dewazakura chooses not to do so, because the brewery could charge more if it did.
"Nama" means it's unpasteurized. Nama sakes don't have shelf lives as long as pasteurized sakes, but if you get to them within a year of production -- and buy them from a refrigerated case, not a dusty store shelf in a careless wine shop -- they have more lively flavors.

SMV, or sake meter value, is a measure of dryness, and ranges from about -3 to about +12 (there are more extreme exceptions). The higher the number, the drier the sake. Zero is actually sweet; I find about
+2 to be neutral.


Tasting Notes:
This sake is intensely floral, with additional aromas of steel, paint and pencil lead. Yes, I know how that sounds -- complexity is a strength here. On the palate, you get all those flowers at first, but it evolves to include some graphite, golden apple, pear and yellow plum. The finish is smooth and creamy, a soft landing after a pretty wild ride. I'm a sucker for something this interesting; this is the kind of sake to provoke conversation, and will entrance fans of complex wines like Burgundy (white and red) and German Riesling.

Food Pairing:
This is a sake that would stand up to meat dishes -- roast pork or grilled chicken would be excellent partners. It's also a fine choice for flavorful fish like mackerel. Try it as an alternative to Alsatian whites with choucroute.

Overall Score: Let's put this one around 9.5 and give subsequent sakes a mark to shoot for.

How Much?: $28 for 720 ml

This sake is available for purchase on the internet, and can be purchased locally in San Francisco at True Sake. It's also available at some Asian food stores. Dewazakura exports a range of products here, so look for the number 33 -- "sansan" -- on the label. That indicates the rice varietal.

About W. Blake Gray: W. Blake Gray has written about sake and Japanese food for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine & Spirits magazine and the in-flight magazines of Japan Airlines and United Airlines. While he enjoyed "28 Weeks Later," he prefers slow-moving zombies to fast ones.

Buy My Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Instagram Delectable Flipboard Pinterest

Most Recent Entries

What's Holding Wine Back in America Vinography Images: From the Fog The World's First Wine Bar Vinography Unboxed: Week of May 31, 2015 Vinography Images: Sky Drama Secrets of the World's Best Wine Lists Vinography Unboxed: Week of May 24, 2015 Vinography Images: The Happy Canyon Drinking Time Itself: The Champagnes of Anselme Selosse The Great Prosecco Crisis of 2015

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune

Archives by Month

 

Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud