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The Nikkei Style site has a feature on the fall of daiginjō… and rise of other legal classifications in its place.

The article opens by noting that many Japanese will look for the terms ginjō or daiginjō on the label when choosing a bottle to give as a gift, with the slightly longer junmai daiginjō taking top spot in their minds.

But as the article goes on to point out, daiginjō and the other tokutei meisho (特定名称, designated appellations/legal classifications) mean nothing except that a sake has fulfilled a set of milling and brewing requirements. It doesn’t tell you much about the taste, except in the broadest sense. But Japanese minds are changing as more people start judging sake for its taste rather than its classification, and kura are following suit.

After a cheeky reference to “Paris shock” (not far off the Japanese affliction of “Paris Syndrome“) the article goes on to talk about the Kura Master award ceremony, held in Paris in July 2018. Out of the 650 sake entered, the winner of the highest award – the President’s Prize – was… a humble junmai. Chiebijin from Nakano Shuzō in Ōita Prefecture. How could this happen, when in Japan a lowly junmai could never hope to compete against a junmai ginjō or junmai daiginjō?

The 60 Kura Master judges were sommeliers at 5-star hotels and famed local restaurants, or involved in the wine or spirits trade. This was the second year of this contest by the French, for the French, judging the sake against their own food. It only accepts sake with the legal classification junmai (including junmai ginjō and junmai daiginjō), none made by the honjōzō-kei or aruten (アル添) method where distilled alcohol is added before pressing to extract flavour and improve stability. The article points out that the added alcohol is often brewed from something other than rice (although not always, see Made in Japan all the way to the added shuzō alcohol).

The general idea is that the more rice is polished, the clearer the flavour of the resulting sake. Hence the alternate wording of “polishing” for milling, and the value placed on highly milled rice in the business. The National New Sake Appraisal (or Annual Japan Sake Awards as the National Research Institute of Brewing calls it) awarded 200 gold medals among the 850 sake entered, and 99% of those winners had a milling ratio 50% or more. [The article doesn’t say which year, but it could be the appraisal held in May 2018.]

It’s precisely this idea that highly polished rice = good sake that the Paris contest has turned on its head. But it’s also a breath of fresh air. Chiebijin makes good use of its plentiful rice content with rich umami expanding in the mouth, somewhat dry in the throat with a short finish. Brewery owner Atsushi Nakano comments that they aimed to create a sake that pairs well not only with Japanese food but also with other cuisines, such as Western or Chinese, thanks to its well-balanced acidity and umami. The kōjimai (rice inoculated with kōji to break carbohydrate down into sugar) is Yamada Nishiki grown in Ōita Prefecture milled to 65%, and the kakemai (steamed rice added to the fermentation) is Okayama-grown Yume-ikkon milled to 70%. Nakano adds that the sake has the advantage of not losing any of its flavour even after being open for a few days.

More from this article tomorrow!