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07.01.2008

Sake Rice Matters: the Experts are Wrong.

By W. Blake Gray

How much does the type of rice matter in sake? "Not much," most experts say. But I disagree, and one of my favorite breweries, Dewazakura from Yamagata prefecture, has made it possible to taste for yourself.

Wine lovers may take it as a given that rice "varietals" matter. We all believe we can tell a dewaOka01.jpgPinot Noir from a Cabernet Sauvignon without difficulty. So why wouldn't we be able to taste the difference between Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku?

With sake, though, the brewing process has always been considered more important than the type of rice. The best example is the most expensive category. Daiginjos -- for which at least 50 percent of the outer portion of the rice has been polished away -- generally taste like other daiginjos, no matter where they're from or what rice is used.

Polish a little less, though, and you start noticing regional variation. At the non-ginjo junmai level -- for which at least 30 percent of the rice has been polished away -- sakes start to exhibit regional characteristics. Niigata sakes tend to taste crisp and clean, for example, while Hiroshima sakes are soft and on the sweet side.

However, sake experts generally attribute regional differences to water. This makes sense. Few breweries own their own rice paddies, and many buy rice from distant prefectures. Water, however, is always local, and is the largest component of sake. (Incidentally, I have had Japanese brewing experts tell me the best sake water in the United States is in Arkansas, in case anybody there wants to start a brewery.)

Yet even while denying that rice matters much, breweries implicitly show that it matters a great deal. Yamada nishiki rice, originally from the Kobe area, is generally considered the best for sake. It has been planted in many other areas of Japan and is also purchased by breweries in many prefectures.

Personally I think everything matters in making premium sake, just as it does with wine. I can't claim to be enough of an expert to detect the difference made by different strains of yeast, but winemakers and sake brewers can, and I believe them. So why do so many sake experts spend so much time claiming rice is immaterial?

At this point I should acknowledge that the owner of this blog, proud new papa Alder Yarrow, is in the rice-doesn't-matter camp. I told him I think I have an affinity for sakes dewaOkaYamada01.jpgmade from gohyakumangoku rice, and he told me I couldn't possibly know that for sure. So I have hijacked his blog for 24 hours to deliver this dissenting opinion. Alder, I think your daughter needs you ...

Anyway, back to Dewazakura. These guys are technological innovators who also happen to make some great sake. Their "Dewasansan" brew, named after the strain of rice specifically developed for their prefectural climate conditions, is one of my go-to choices in restaurants around town because it's both delicious and widely available.

However, the Dewasansan brew is not a pure test of the taste qualities of the rice itself. One important factor is that Dewasansan uses a different yeast than the company's other main premium brew, nicknamed "Oka." Its alcohol percentage is a little higher than Oka's, and it's not quite as dry.

Enter the beverage geek's sake: Dewazakura Oka Yamadanishiki. This small-production version of the Oka sake has the same yeast and fermentation regimen as the everyday Oka; the only major difference is the rice.

I opened them side-by-side to see if I could taste the difference. They have similarities, the result of a master brewer's attempt to create a consistent style from year to year. Both are creamy with notes of peach.

But to me they are more different than alike. The Yamadanishiki version is stronger on the nose, with more pronounced peach notes and a funky clay-earth like note that I like. The regular version, made from Miyamanishiki rice, smells more straightforwardly creamy, with a chalky note.

On the palate, it's the same: the Yamadanishiki version is fruitier, fuller and has a longer finish. But that's not to say some people won't prefer the regular version, which has a smoother mouthfeel and an appealing white chocolate note.

The great thing about Dewazakura's two versions of "Oka" is that you don't have to listen to some wine writer talk about how he tasted tank samples and he really grasped the difference the rice strain makes. These are commercial products available for sale, and neither is particularly expensive. You can just go out and buy a bottle of each and prove to yourself that the strain of rice matters.

Dewazakura "Oka," Yamagata Prefecture. $25 Where to buy?
Dewazakura "Oka Yamadanishiki," Yamagata Prefecture. $25 Where to buy?

I now return you to this blog's regular programming.

After drinking sake made from it, W. Blake Gray enjoys trying to say "gohyakumangoku" 10 times fast. He lives in San Francisco.

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