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Sunday, June 9, 2002
A taste of pure gold
This year's National New Sake Tasting Competition, or Zenkoku Shinshu Kampyoukai, just wrapped up in Hiroshima. This historically and culturally significant event has been held since 1910, and Japan is the only country in the world that runs such a competition for the indigenous alcoholic beverage.
Although not all the 1,600-odd sakagura in the country submit sake to the tasting, over 1,000 of them did this year. These sake are judged in two rounds, kind of like preliminaries and finals. In the final round, the top scorers are awarded gold medals. This year, 289 such prizes were awarded.
Note that about a quarter of the entries won gold prizes; this is typical of recent years' results. Keep in mind that all of the sake submitted were specially brewed only for this contest, and all were created using incredibly labor-intensive techniques. These sake, in other words, are already the best of the best of the best.
Having said that, sake like these gold-prize winners is hardly the stuff you want to drink a lot of; usually a single, small glass is plenty. While fascinating, they are usually a bit extreme in their manifestations of flavor and aroma. Kind of like premium sake on steroids. Above all, sake for this contest is brewed to exude an absolute minimum of flaws.
For the second year, there were two categories: one for sake brewed with Yamada Nishiki rice and one for sake brewed with other rice strains. There were 1,023 of the former, and but 71 entries in the latter. And while about a quarter of the Yamada Nishiki sake won gold, only nine of the non-Yamada brews were deemed outstanding. Of course, this just adds to the legend of Yamada Nishiki, as if it needed more accolades. But still, it is great to see breweries trying with other rice as well.
There is always a healthy sense of competition between the prefectures, but there were a few surprises this year. For only the third time in the last 11 years, Niigata Prefecture did not take the most golds; neighboring Nagano, perennially breathing down Niigata's neck, overtook it with 26 to Niigata's 22. Also, Hiroshima came roaring back with 22 golds as well; last year, it had a horrendous outing as it took some chances with a new yeast strain.
Overall, however, there was a bit of grumbling this year that the sake was not as fine as usual. Some curmudgeons felt that there was a bit too much flavor, a tad of a cloying nature to many.
Many people rightly point out that since contest-winning sake is not sold to consumers, what does it matter if a certain brewery wins a gold? The true significance of contests like these is that they indicate a brewer's skill in being able to conform to a constricted profile and have absolute control over its creations. And, in my mind, this is most impressive when accomplished for years in succession.
While no brewery consistently wins every single year, Gekkeikan of Kyoto and Asabiraki of Iwate have won 10 out of the last 11 years. A handful have won nine out of 11, such as Hatsumago of Yamagata, Kawatsuru of Kagawa, Tosatsuru of Kochi and Hakutsuru of Hyogo. So when a brewery sells great sake to consumers and consummates that with regular golds at such contests, we can be sure it knows what it is doing.
Asabiraki (Iwate Prefecture)
No brewery has won more golds over the last 11 years than Asabiraki. This junmaishu, only one of its many products, is crisp, clean and refined, with an apple and flower-laced aroma that is somewhat prominent for a junmaishu.