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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2001

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Sake gold standards shifting



Last week, on May 30, the Zenkoku Shinshu Kanpyo Kai, or National New Sake Tasting Competition, was held in Hiroshima. This year 1,133 sake that made it through the nine regional competitions were tasted blindly by a panel of government-employed, highly trained judges. Out of these, 382 were given a gold medal. 

The significance of this contest is dubious at best. One reason is that the sake submitted by the participating breweries is a far cry from the sake they sell to us; it is specially brewed in small batches and is extreme in its manifestations of flavor and fragrance. It is brewed to exude extremely specific attributes -- in short, what the judges this year are looking for.

Yet the fact that this sake is created with such deliberateness means that it is indeed indicative of a brewer's skill, especially when a brewer wins several years in a row. This, considered in tandem with the standard products of a brewery, tells a lot about overall quality.

For the first time, this year there were two categories: one for sake brewed with Yamada Nishiki rice and one for sake brewed with rice other than the mighty Yamada. Not surprisingly, the king of sake rice prevailed, representing 30 percent (308 out of 1,059) of the submitted sake winning gold, as opposed to 10 percent (a mere seven out of 74) of the also-ran rice sake varieties taking top honors.

The results were partly expected and partly surprising. As usual, Niigata dominated this year, winning 30 golds. A pleasant surprise was Shimane, claiming 13. The shocker came from Hiroshima, another perennial butt-kicker, who this year took home but five gold medals. Ah, well, there is always next year.

As there is a lot of prefectural pride around, many prefectures will, for example, develop special yeast strains, and all the brewers will "be advised" to submit sake brewed with them. This was behind both the success of Shimane and the downfall of Hiroshima.

What is, to me, most significant about the results of this contest each year is the fact that they serve as an indication of where sake flavor profiles are headed. By tasting a wide range of sake from the various regions, one can tell how the flavor profiles change.

This year, the differences were profound. Gone were hyper-fragrant sake expressing strawberry and banana essences in the nose. Gone, too, were super-light and overly delicate flavor profiles. This year's sake, everyone agreed, had tighter, more solid, more well-defined flavors ("shikkari shite iru aji" was how folks were expressing it). Fragrances, while more prominent than average premium sake, were more subdued as well.

In the daylong tasting session open to the public after the results have been compiled, I found Niigata sake in particular to be profoundly (well, profoundly for sake) different from the past. It was significantly more settled and full in flavor -- a wonderful departure from its super-light and dry days.

Of course, this also reveals one of the downsides of the contest: Where things are headed sometimes seems like it is up to the whim of the 30 or so judges. Experienced though they may be, they can hardly be said to represent a huge slice of consumers.

Those interested in more information on the contest and the winners can find it, in Japanese only, at index.html

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Sekai no Hana (Shimane Prefecture)


One of the Shimane sake that won golden honors last week, this junmaishu is a bit softer and lower in acidity than most Shimane sake. Settled and smooth, it has a mild sweetness to the recesses.

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On April 14, Rob Yellin and I will host another sake and pottery seminar at the sake pub Mushu near Shin-Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations.

For more information and/or to make a reservation, please contact me by e-mail or fax.

Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter and learn anything and everything about sake at

The Japan Times: June 10, 2001
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