In the wine world, the grapes matter. Move past the varietal surface of wine consumption, and you’ll quickly descend into a world where the qualities of a given wine (say, Russian River Pinot Noir) are discussed in terms of how Dijon clone 667 grapes do on Riparia Gloire rootstock.
In the world of sake, a lot of things matter, from the water, to the yeast, to the Koji mold — and of course, the rice. To say that rice is to sake as grapes are to wine is not entirely accurate. For instance, the primary differences in how two different sakes taste is rarely attributable to the strain of rice used (holding all other variables in sake making constant, but changing the type of rice will result in a subtly different flavor profile — though this is rarely done). Those readers with more sake familiarity know that the majority of all sake, and almost the entirety of ginjo and daiginjo grade sake is made with just a single strain of rice known as Yamadanishiki.
So generally when discussing the differences between sakes, or even regional styles of sake, rice is not the first thing to enter the conversation. Having said that, there are some regional variations in the rice that brewers tend to use, and there are those breweries that go out of their way to make sake with specific varieties of rice in order to achieve specific flavor profiles.
If there is another rice strain that ever tends to cross the lips of even the more novice sake aficionados, it is the Omachi rice variety. Omachi is particularly interesting, not just because it is used by less than 30% of the breweries in Japan according to some sources, but because it is the oldest known “pure” strain of rice in Japan. While all the other rice varieties for sake have been hybridized over the years, Omachi has been cultivated without hybridization since it was discovered in 1859 in the small village deep in Okayama Prefecture whose name it now bears.
For some reason, most likely the accident of natural selection, Omachi rice does not hybridize well. Many have tried and failed over the years, so Omachi remains a bit of a spinster in the world of rice — a strong personality with virtually no offspring (there are only three successful hybrids, and those took a lot of work). Nineteenth century Japanese farmers had no need to hybridize it, however, so it didn’t bother them a bit — indeed, at one point it was apparently one of the most popular varieties of table rice in the country.
But when mechanical harvesting replaced hand harvesting of rice, Omachi fell out of favor because its long, thick stalks and irregular clusters of grains made it difficult for the early harvesting machines.
Today it remains a bit of a novelty in the sake making world, though some select brewers have begun to take it quite seriously as a source for top grade sake.
One of those breweries is Minogawa Shuzo, based in Niigata prefecture. Founded in 1827 this brewery produces a number of artisan sakes, all made proudly with water from the underground currents of the Shinano River. Pulled from the brewery’s well at a depth of 295 feet below the surface of the earth, this water is unusually soft in character which leads, or so master brewer Masayuki Tanaka claims, to the particularly smooth quality of its sake.
Though some breweries use the Omachi rice for sake, very few use it to make a daiginjo class sake, so this particular sake is quite unusual and special for that fact alone. To be a daiginjo sake, more than 50% of the mass of each rice kernel must be polished away. This sake is made from rice that has been polished to 40% of its former mass.
While Minogawa Shuzo produces a number of sakes, only a couple of their products are imported to the US. This sake comes in both 720ml and 180ml bottles, and the 180ml is particularly attractive with its light blue, hand blown glass
Colorless in the glass this sake has a nose of pastry cream and the smell of good quality jasmine rice just as you lift the lid off the rice cooker. In the mouth it has excellent balance with a nice acidity, and very clean flavors of rainwater, floral essences, and a deeper, earthy and mineral quality which lingers powerfully into a remarkably long finish for a sake. Perhaps most strikingly this sake has a texture that makes me swoon, deeply silky and horribly sexy.
I recommend this sake with fish, noodle and egg dishes. It can stand up to sturdier and fattier foods quite well.
Overall Score: between 9.5 and 10
How Much?: $80 for 720ml, $18 for 180ml
This sake is available for purchase on the Internet.