Snow Country, 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Updated: May 15, 2021
“Lie down, she told him, slipping back to return a few moments later, bringing two glasses full of sake.”
Excerpt from Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.
And precisely, thanks to its snow, the Niigata Prefecture produces the best sake in the world.
Niigata’s agricultural production takes place primarily in a large plain wedged between the Sea of Japan to the west and the Ichigo Mountains to the east. The humidity of the sea air clings to the sides of the mountains; the prefecture receives more than 3 metres of precipitation per year of which about 2 metres are in the form of snow. Some mountainous areas receive more than 30 feet of snow per year.
Through the protection of watersheds, beech forests create an environment of abundant fallen leaves which turn into humus which in turn acts as a fine filter for rain and snow water.
The water course of precipitation and the melting of snow is slowed down; the water is absorbed into the ground and steadily flows out. Due to the slow flow, the effects of floods and droughts are mitigated and pure water is spread.
This groundwater gushes out like rivers everywhere in the prefecture.
Also, the impermeable granite bottom is free from iron and calcium compounds that would harden water (see article on water hardness). The soft and refreshing texture of this water is ideal for making Tanrei Karakuchi sake (light and dry).
Winter influences the quality of sake in three ways:
The runoff from melting heavy snowfall saturates the beautiful rice fields with pure water for growing sake rice.
As discussed in a previous article, the purity of water due to precipitation is also an important part of the brewing process, as water plays a most essential role in determining the taste of sake.
Finally, the winter climate and the constant snowfall are natural air purifiers. Thus, the brewing process takes place in an atmosphere containing virtually no pollutants or microbes that could have a negative impact on the product. Making sake is a long and complex process using yeast, but also koji. During fermentation, the tanks remain open, so it is important to minimize the risk of contamination by microorganisms that would rival the yeasts and koji chosen by the master brewer.
Niigata now has the third-largest sake production in Japan after Hyōgo and Kyoto prefectures. They are very popular for their lightness.
The delicate flavour and aroma of sakes made by the ninety-seven brewers as well as the Niigata Prefecture Sake Research Institute contrast with the sweet, full-bodied sakes that once dominated Japan.