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Wow. I actually copied and pasted the title of this post from another one from almost a year ago. Most of the entries on this blog are a personal project to post a translation/summary of a Japanese news article a day for at least a year, so this reminds me that I actually started posting here before setting myself that challenge.

So, another year, another International Wine Challenge (IWC) and another trophy winners’ tasting at the Japanese Embassy in London.

Unfortunately the WABI Japanese food fair doesn’t seem to be happening this year, I emailed the organisers a few times but no reply. So this was a flying visit to London, in on the Monday morning and back on Tuesday evening. I still managed to pack in meeting family and friends, visiting Workshop Coffee and plenty of walking around and shopping.

I was given permission to take photos again this year, and therefore had the enormous blue and yellow PRESS armband which never ceases to amuse me. (At least it kind of went with what I was wearing.) The rooms and layout were similar to last year, and the talks, although there were some changes.

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The evening kicked off with a few words from the embassy, then the ever-cheerful and energetic Kazuhiro Maegaki of Kamoizumi in his role as the chairman of the Sake Samurai Association (above, left). He was followed by Andrew Reed of the IWC (above, right), then UK Sake Samurai Rie Yoshitake and Chris Ashton of the IWC (below, left with Andrew Reed) who talked attendees through the structure of the competition and how the winners are selected.

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The main speaker this year was the governor of Yamagata Prefecture, Mieko Yoshimura (above, right), who gave a general introduction to the region including its sake, wine and other agricultural produce and the fact that it had hosted the judging for this year’s sake division of the IWC. She also gave a quick run down of its achievements, such as being the first prefecture to get a Geographic Indication (GI) for its sake, granted by the National Tax Agency, winning the most gold medals for five years in a row in the IWC sake division, and same for the US National Sake Appraisal for 11 years in a row, plus taking top place in a Japanese regional sake brand ranking for 12 years in a row.

She was followed by a representative for the Yamagata brewers’ association, whose name I unfortunately did not note down, who had a hilarious presentation which could be summed up as “whoops, we did it again” in terms of coming in as No. 1 for just about everything. (I also don’t have a decent photo of him, unfortunately my camera does not do well in low light.) He talked about the prefecture’s harsh winters, snow meltwater supplying the rice fields in spring, prefectural development of new sake rice varieties, and abundant water supplies with a range of soft to medium-hard to hard water. (With the caveat that “hard water” in Japan would probably still be “soft” for anyone who has been to the south of England.) He also talked about the GI and how it reflects regionality, and showed a breakdown of sake production by category nationwide compared with the breakdown in Yamagata.

  • Junmai ginjō – national: 8%, Yamagata: 25%
  • Non-junmai ginjō – national: 5%, Yamagata: 14%
  • Junmai – national: 13%, Yamagata: 23%
  • Honjōzō – national: 8%, Yamagata: 16%
  • Futsūshu – national: 66%, Yamagata 22%

I think their strategy is clear – tokutei meisho all the way.

He also showed a breakdown of rice varieties grown in each prefecture, with Yamagata second behind Hyōgo in the number grown, and discussed the different varieties grown in Yamagata and their suitability for different types of sake.

  • Yukimegami: Developed in 2014, small opaque kernel suitable for daiginjō, best polishing ratio 35-50%
  • Dewasansan: Developed in 1995, medium-sized kernel suitable for ginjō, best polishing ratio 45-60%
  • Dewanosato: Developed in 2004, large opaque kernel suitable for junmai, best polishing ratio 55-80%
  • Dewakirari: Developed in 2009, resistant to cracking so suitable as kakemai (steamed rice not inoculated with kōji), suitable for futsūshu, honjōzō and junmai, best polishing ratio 60-75%

He also introduced the Yamagata Prefecture Sake Brewing Research Society, which has research groups developing sake yeast, researching rice cultivation and testing sake ageing at different temperatures. Then it was back to the IWC, with Yamagata’s Gassan brewery winning the Great Value Award in 2015, followed by Dewazakura winning Champion Sake in 2016. As mentioned previously by governor Yoshimura, Yamagata scored more gold medals in this year’s IWC than any other prefecture. (Although the table he showed also listed them with the most breweries entered. If you go on a prizes-per-brewery basis, Yamagata scored 2.3 whereas Nagano scored 2.4, Miyagi 2.7, Gifu 2.7, Saga 3, Shizuoka 3. For gold medals, Yamagata scored 0.61, while Tochigi were 0.8.)

There was also a slide claiming Yamagata had the most IWC gold medals and “prefectural rankings” over the last 12 years, although it wasn’t clear what exactly this referred to. The prefecture also came top in the number of Parker Points awarded, if that means anything to you. He also repeated governor Yoshimura again and showed data for the Japanese sake brand popularity survey and US Sake Appraisal that she mentioned. This was followed by a graph showing a sharp and steady rise in exports from the prefecture, and a breakdown of export destinations (USA taking 51%, followed by China with 16%, Hong Kong with 7%, South Korea 6%, Taiwan 4%, Singapore 3%, Australia 2%, UK 2%, and Thailand, Malaysia, France, Canada, Germany and Italy all at 1% with 3% going elsewhere).

The brewers sat quietly at the front the whole time, only standing to take a bow when their trophy win was announced by Rie Yoshitaka and Chris Ashton. Although it was kind of a shame not to hear more from them, it replaced the chaotic multiple self-introductions last year where no-one (brewers or assistants) spoke much English. It was hilarious, with the cry of “Wow!” acting as a kind of meme for the night, but very haphazard. The set-up this year was more promising, but didn’t quite deliver. Governor Yoshimura and the brewers’ association representative spoke in Japanese with an interpreter, but unfortunately the interpreter didn’t seem to have received copies of their presentations or been briefed in advance (even though they were clearly reading from scripts and had slides) so she struggled with taking notes and interpreting on the fly. Her English was good, and mostly the message got across, but it was more of a transfer of information and missed out quite a bit of character and emotion. I felt bad for her, and I think the brewers’ association representative changed his presentation to shorter sentences to help her out, but as the talk went on she started missing out some phrases and gave “Dewazkura” (brewery) as “Dewasansan” (rice variety/sacred mountains) which was corrected by the speaker. She also consistently rendered GI as “geographic identification” instead of “Geographic Indication”. So, frustrating but still better than last time.

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After all that, it was finally tasting time! The embassy staff and brewers (accompanied by a representative from the National Tax Agency in a blazing gold happi) cleared the chairs, brought out the glasses and started pouring.

I got the impression that there were fewer tables and possibly fewer attendees than last time, and although I can’t comment on the number of attendees there were fewer tables – 2017 had 16 breweries plus representatives from Hyōgo Prefecture, and this year there was a table for Yamagata Prefecture plus 14 breweries. Only two tables less, but it was much less hectic and cooler too.

The trophy winners:

  • Junmai ginjō trophy: Fumotoi junmai ginjō Yamadanishiki, Fumotoi brewery, Yamagata Prefecture
  • Koshu trophy: Kijo Daikoshu Furudokei, Hinode/Kamogawa brewery, Yamagata Prefecture
  • Honjōzō trophy: Hatsumago Densho Kimoto, Tohoku Meijo brewery, Yamagata Prefecture
  • Sparkling trophy: Suzune Wabi, Ichinokura brewery, Miyagi Prefecture
  • Junmai trophy: Gekkyu, Nagurayama brewery, Fukushima Prefecture
  • Ginjō trophy: Okunomatsu Adatara ginjō, Okunomatsu brewery, Fukushima Prefecture
  • Futsushu trophy: Tentaka Umakara, Tentaka brewery, Tochigi Prefecture (also awarded Great Value Sake)
  • Daiginjō trophy: Miyanoyuki daiginjō, Miyanoyuki brewery, Mie Prefecture
  • Junmai daiginjō trophy: Kinsuzume 2017, Kinsuzume brewery, Yamaguchi Prefecture

There were also a few others:

  • Mie junmai daiginjō trophy: Zaku Kaizan Ittekisui, Zaku brewery, Mie Prefecture
  • Kyoto honjōzō trophy/Great Value Sake: Gekkeikan Tokusen, Gekkeikan brewery, Kyoto
  • Okayama honjōzō trophy: Kamikokoro Hihou honjōzō, Kamikokoro brewery, Okayama Prefecture
  • Daiginjō gold medal: Fukuju daiginjō Gold, Kobe Shushinkan brewery, Hyogo Prefecture
  • Koshu bronze medal: 1997 Sachi, Kamoizumi brewery, Hiroshima Prefecture
  • Yamagata prefecture stand


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I actually ended up chatting to Andrew Reed as the tasting was starting, who had lots of entertaining stories to share especially about setting up the Chinese edition of the competition. I also chatted to Nobuhiko Fujii of Kamikokoro, a neighbour of Jūhachi Zakari who I visited last year, and was relieved to hear that his kura had been spared by the terrible flooding (although some of his staff had their houses flooded). Kamikokoro’s honjōzō was amazing, and I’ll definitely try to visit if I’m near Okayama on my next visit.

There were lots of jokes about moving the embassy to Cardiff with a Welsh member of embassy staff before tasting sake from Kinsuzume, who had the 2016 and 2017 version of the same Yamadanishiki junmai daiginjō. Although the 2017 was the prize-winner, I actually preferred the 2016, it was a bit more settled and less astringent, and overall there was a remarkable difference between the two.

It was great to see a familiar – and friendly – face in Kazuhiro Maegaki at the Kamoizumi stand. As he’s part of the Sake Samurai Association there’s a chance he’ll be there every year even if Kamoizumi don’t win a trophy. His 1997 Sachi koshu was lovely, quite sharp and a bit like brandy.

I went back to the main room and ended up talking for a while with a few other guests, then found that Ichinokura, one of only three breweries back from last year, had run out of their sparkling trophy-winner Suzune Wabi! I can get it in Geneva so I’ll pick up a bottle next time I’m there. We also got talking to one of the first secretaries at the embassy, who very kindly remembered me and my brother from last year (I put it down to my brother’s very impressive beard). He urged us to try the koshu trophy winner – and oh my goodness. Furudokei from Kamogawa is a very, very special koshu. Almost 45 years old, it’s deep, intense and full of dried fruit flavour.

I also really enjoyed the Tentaka Umakara, and chatted with the people behind the table about organic production in Japan – it’s still something of a novelty, with only about 10 breweries doing everything organically. The Nagurayama Gekkyu junmai was also lovely, and I got into a three-way conversation between someone behind their table and another guest who turned out to be the organiser of the Salon du Sake being held in Paris in October, the next event I’m hoping to go to!