By 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.
Polishing ratio: 50 percent
"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.
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.
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.
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