Is There Such a Thing as Saké Terroir? It’s Complicated. | Wine Enthusiast
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Is There Such a Thing as Saké Terroir? It’s Complicated.

For over 2,500 years, the story of saké has evolved, percolating through the bedrock of the 47 prefectures contained in the archipelago of Japan. From snowy Hokkaido in the north to subtropical Okinawa in the south, saké and its culture evolved uniquely, molded by aspects of people and place.

In wine, terms like regionality and terroir are overarching and ubiquitous. There’s little debate whether the taste or style of well-made wines can reflect peculiarities of origin—variables like soil, climate, topography and otherwise. Yet when asked whether there’s a clear expression of regionality and terroir in the taste or style of saké, most saké producers will respond hesitantly. Often, the response is that it’s complicated.

Saké is brewed from just four basic ingredients: Rice and water aided by microorganisms that trigger fermentation—koji, a mold derived from rice—and yeast. A skilled brewer can, and often does, produce exceptional saké using ingredients with no connection to any specific place. Rice is a commodity in Japanese culture with a long history of distribution to near and distant locales.

Still, it’s undeniable that saké is regionally nuanced, influenced not only by place, but also the culture, tradition and history of the people there. The ideology of terroir transplanted from the wine world may not fully convey the intricacies but helps to tell saké’s own unique story.

rice grains
Honda Shoten rice seedlings / Photo by Horst Friedrichs Anzenberger

Grain by Grain

While rice may seem an obvious link between origin and saké, the vast majority of independent saké producers don’t farm their own rice or rely on locally produced rice or rice strains. Instead, for generations, most producers have sourced rice from a network of agricultural cooperatives that market and distribute rice from throughout the country.

“Before World War II, it was common for powerful landowners to grow their own rice and brew saké in their own breweries,” explains Yoshiko Ueno-Müller, founder of Ueno Gourmet, the leading importer of premium saké in Europe and a saké expert assessor certified by Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing. “But land reform after WWII contributed to a gap between breweries and farmers,” she says. “As the distribution of rice across the country became so ubiquitous, it’s harder to see rice as a factor of terroir.”

Today, there are over 100 saké-specific rice strains available in Japan including many ancient or heirloom varieties once tied to specific regions. But the success of a handful of high yielding, easy-to-work-with modern hybrids, particularly the favored Yamadanishiki, has contributed to a remarkable uniformity in premium saké production. Over 80% of the saké awarded gold medals in the National Research Institute of Brewing’s Annual Japan Saké Awards (a benchmark competition) are made from Yamada Nishiki. Nearly one third of all saké brewing rice in Japan comes from a single prefecture: Hyogo.

More than the origin of rice, its lineage or method of cultivation, modern saké production has centered squarely on production technique. So much so that Japan’s contemporary saké classification system determines quality based largely on seimaibuai, or rice polishing ratios—the more rice is polished down, the higher the grade of saké. At the top of the saké hierarchy are daiginjo or ginjo styles brewed with rice milled down to less than half of their initial size.

Major technological advancements in rice processing in the 1990s spurred an explosion of super-premium ginjo and daiginjo saké that continue to be popular today. A frenzied race to hit the lowest polishing ratio possible culminated in 2018 with Niizawa Sake Brewery’s Reikyo Absolute Zero, a daiginjo brewed from rice with just .085% of the grain remaining.

But there’s a futility in these so-called rice milling wars that doesn’t always end with the best possible saké, suggests Ryusuke Honda, the fifth-generation president of his family brewery, Honda Shoten. Established a century ago, the producer of the Tatsuriki brand of saké was a pioneer of premiumization focused on small productions of high quality, ginjo-style saké as early as the 1970s. Today, Honda Shoten is a leading saké producer focused on the pursuit of terroir through rice grown in their native Hyogo.

Visits to Domaine Romanée-Conti, the hallowed Grand Cru appellation of Burgundy, inspired his father and grandfather to delve into decades of research into the Hyogo’s best rice-growing terroir. Most particularly, Honda says, they discovered remarkable distinctions in the soil of Hyogo’s famed Special A District, one of the few rice-growing regions in Japan delineated for the production of regionally distinct, exceptionally high quality Yamadanishiki rice.

Their flagship junmai daiginjo, the Tatsuriki Akitsu, first released in 1996, is made entirely from Yamadanishiki rice produced for Honda Shoten by exclusive contract with a single grower in Akitsu, a subregion of this Special A District.

Envisioned as Japan’s answer to Romanée-Conti, it’s considered one of just a handful of single-origin, terroir-driven expressions of saké made today.

Sake terroir Hakushu Waterfall
Snowmelt from Japan’s Southern Alps provides water in Hakushu / Photo courtesy of Shichiken

Go with the Flow

In Japan, it’s often said that where you find good water, you’ll find good saké. Indeed, many of Japan’s most historic saké brewing regions, like Nada in Hyogo, or Fushimi in Kyoto Prefecture, developed around places with abundant, sometimes regionally distinct water.

“Historically, water did play a large part in saké’s regional identity,” says Honda. For example, “the unusually mineral-rich water in Nada, known as miyamizu (meaning heavenly water), contributed to a rapid, stable fermentation and distinct mouthfeel and flavor profile.”

Japan is blessed with ample sources of consistently soft water— lower in minerals like calcium and manganese—well suited for saké brewing. But it’s increasingly difficult to identify regional linkages between water and saké when much of modern saké is produced with tap water drawn from multiple sources and subject to filtration, purification or mineralization.

For Tsushima Kitahara, the 13th generation head and CEO of Yamanashi Meijo Co., however, “water is the very core of our identity.” Kitahara’s brewery, which produces the Shichiken brand of saké, is located in Hakushu in Yamanashi Prefecture, a village at the foot of Japan’s Southern Alps and home to some of Japan’s most famous source waters.

“In more than 270 years since our establishment in 1750, there’s been significant changes in how saké is made,” explains Kitahara. “But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the shikomisui, the local waters used in saké making here.”

Unlike saké producers who build their brands on the skills or techniques of brewers, or state-of-the-art rice milling technology, says Kitahara, “our focus is to create saké that lives up to the potential of this water.” The freshness and vitality of Shichiken’s signature style is most influenced by Hakushu’s exceptionally soft, pristine waters, he suggests.

“There’s value,” Kitahara says, “in using rice nurtured by the same waters used to brew saké. In my opinion, it’s the way Shichiken was meant to be.”

Shichiken brewery in Yamanashi;
Shichiken brewery in Yamanashi / Photo Courtesy of Shichiken

The Human Element

Traditionally, the skill and intuition of the toji, or master brewer, played a large part in developing saké style and taste. In many breweries, the toji singlehandedly determined the kind of rice, yeast or koji to use, as well as the methods of brewing. Many toji were historically affiliated with influential regional guilds that further influenced regional styles of saké brewing. With the vast majority of contemporary saké produced using inoculated yeast the choice of yeast is particularly influential.

According to the Kyoto Municipal Institute of Industrial Technology and Culture, “yeast contributes 60% of the flavors and aromas found in saké.” As with modern rice strains, there’s a myriad of cultivated yeasts available to brewers. The popularity of a handful of yeasts, however, promoted by regional or government-affiliated brewing organizations, has led to an increasing homogeneity.

“In contemporary Japan, the taste profiles of saké are becoming more uniform, conforming to what’s trendy in places like Tokyo, or to standards issued by the National Research Institute of Brewing,” confirms Ueno-Müller. “But historically, there were regional styles of taste profile that were much more distinct,” she says.

Mountainous prefectures like Gifu, Nagano, Gunma or Tochigi were often landlocked in the winter due to massive snowfall, so preserved foods like miso, pickled vegetables or dried boar were common, she explains. “To stand up to these assertive, saltier flavor profiles, saké in these regions developed a richer, often sweeter or fuller-bodied style,” says Ueno-Müller.

By contrast, in Niigata, where local delicacies included crab and other fresh seafood, refreshing, drier styles of saké were common, she says. “In areas like Niigata or Kochi, the heavy drinking cultures of the people there also contributed to the development of saké that could be as drinkable as water.”

Today, as food and drink culture has become more homogeneous in Japan, these regional differences in saké have also become less apparent.

Sake terroir Honda Shoten harvesting rice
Harvesting Yamadanishiki rice in the autumn / Photo courtesy of Honda Shoten

Redefining Terroir

At a time when good saké can be made virtually anywhere, and regional differences in Japanese culture are becoming less prominent, paradoxically, there’s been a renewed drive among many Japanese brewers to seek out regional identity and terroir.

There’s a significant increase in producers who are growing their own rice, contracting local farmers or experimenting with heirloom rice strains, explains Honda. “But we’re just at the cusp of developing clear regional identities in saké.” As an industry, he explains, “we’ve only just begun to study and appreciate differentiations of soil or other aspects of terroir.”

Since 2005, the National Tax Agency of Japan has designated twelve saké production regions with geographical indications (GIs). Based on the French AOC system, the GI certifies the geographic origins of saké made according to specified production standards. While the standards vary from region to region, they typically require saké to be made from Japanese rice (sourced from anywhere in Japan) but using local water.

Planting of Yamadanishiki rice seedlings in Hyogo’s Special A District / Photo by Horst Friedrichs Anzenberger

The GI system is still embryonic, but a useful communication tool, particularly to Western consumers, says Kitahara. “It’s still not easy to establish a baseline of saké knowledge among most non-Japanese. So, it’s helpful to explain saké in comparison to wine, leaning on a framework that’s already established in the wine world,” he says. But there’s a fallacy in the expectation that Western notions of terroir from wine are directly applicable, or even relevant to the diversity of Japanese saké. There is far from consensus about it in the saké industry. Ultimately, “an expression of regionality isn’t necessarily what’s traditional or authentic to any given region,” he says.

While terroir can provide that useful framework, “I don’t think most Japanese consumers are thinking about regionality or terroir when choosing saké,” says Nancy Matsumoto, a historian and author, with Michael Tremblay, of Exploring the World of Japanese Craft Saké.  Instead, she suggests, Japanese brand identity has focused more on the producer and its history: “It’s also much more intuitive, more holistic and less obsessed with labeling and notes. They’ll say, simply, ‘umai,’ meaning, ‘This is good, I like it and I can tell it’s well made.’”

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