And what I mean by that title is, back to the eternal question of terroir for sake.
Sake Times reports on yet another location proclaiming it has terroir (other than Hyōgo Prefecture, who staked their claim in no uncertain terms at the IWC award winners' tasting at the Japanese Embassy in London in June 2017, and at the WABI Japanese food and drink event a few days later).
This time it's Kyoto claiming it's got what it takes through its local sake-specific rice varieties, Iwai (祝, celebration) and Kyō no Kagayaki (京の輝き, splendour of the old capital).
But does sake really have terroir? The article starts off by explaining the term, a French word derived from terre (land) that encompasses the influence of the growing area - geography, topography, climate - on the crop. (And, more recently with advances in analytical technology and genetic sequencing, the effect of local microbial communities.) The physical land area is also key to the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), a French type of Geographical Indication (GI) often used for wine. (Yamagata now has a GI, which I must look into.)
But as the article points out, most of the rice used for sake brewing is grown in one area but then sent to another to be made into sake, breaking the link between the area of origin and area of production. Some producers in Hyōgo, Yamagata, Mie and Gunma are now looking to locally grown rice to increase the appeal of their sake as a local product, so that restores the connection. But is it enough?
"The influence of terroir means that wines from a particular region are unique, incapable of being reproduced outside that area, even if the grape variety and winemaking techniques are painstakingly duplicated." (Wikipedia) Can this be true for sake? I would think that the extensive milling and washing the rice undergoes would effectively remove many traces of the original soil in which it was grown, and this was also the opinion of Natsuki Kikuya, the tutor on my WSET Level 3 Award in Sake. According to her, the biggest influence is brewing style, which may be characteristic to one region but can easily be reproduced somewhere else. Fertiliser may have an impact, in terms of the influence of farming practice, but I'm not sure what else.
Supported by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and five local governments including those of Hyōgo and Kyoto, the Jisedai Sakamai Consortium (次世代酒米コンソーシアム, Next-generation Sake Rice Consortium) research group was set up to strengthen local sake brands that used local rice. The Kyoto Prefectural Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Technology Centre looked investigated cultivation of Iwai and Kyō no Kagayaki, with local mega-brewery Kizakura using them in tests. The rice and resulting sake were analysed by Kyoto Prefectural University and Kyoto Municipal Institute of Industrial Technology and Culture.
The Iwai variety, produced by a cross from the sake-specific Nojōho variety in year 8 of the Showa Period (1933), has a particularly large shinpaku starch core and is low in protein, both beneficial for sake brewing, and has long been grown in the Kyoto area. Its large starch core makes it amenable to heavy milling and therefore to ginjō/daiginjō brewing. However, cultivation was abandoned during wartime and although it was revived later the variety was found to have a low yield, be tall and prone to breaking, and unsuited to the mechanisation of agriculture - so it fell out of favour again, with no-one growing it by the '40s of the Showa Era (1965-1974).
A resurgence of interest in brewing Kyoto sake from Kyoto rice led to it being grown again in year 4 of the Heisei Period (1992). It is currently grown under contract by farmers in the Kyoto area, and used by local breweries, particularly those around Fushimi. In 2012, Iwai and sake made exclusively from it were officially recognised as "Kyoto Brand Products" by the prefecture. It breaks down particularly easily in the main moromi fermentation, yielding lots of umami flavour and a mellow, rounded sake.
Kyō no Kagayaki is a newer strain, developed by Kyoto Prefecture and the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) in cooperation with local brewers. It was specifically developed to be kakemai, the steamed rice added to the fermentation that does not have the kōji fungus grown on it. It has large grains and little protein, making it suitable for brewing, but unlike other sake-specific rice varieties it has a high yield and is very productive. It produces sake that is light in body but still has plenty of umami. Commercial cultivation started in 1993.
I had this idea before noticing the updated Wine Folly article on microbes and terroir, so throwing it out there:
Could terroir in sake be defined as microbiological communities in kura that enter the moto starter in kimoto/yamahai?
Plus local water, which has a distinct mineral profile that influences brewing?
If the kura doesn't use artificial heating/cooling that could be another factor, but given the tight temperature control needed I'm not sure that's feasible. But as milling removes so much of what could be considered terroir, it could lead to a sake-specific definition that doesn't rely on what the term means for wine.
Thoughts? Drop me an email or let me know on Twitter (@tastetrans).