The Sakamai and the Terroir
Updated: May 26
As explained on the RICE 酒米 page, every rice cultivar grows better in one region than another.
But, in Japan, any brewer can use any rice from any prefecture. The requirements of the National Taxation Agency of Japan which are applied to classify sakes do not link any variety of Sakamai to a region.
An Aichi Shuzo can very well utilize Yamadanishiki farmed in Hiroshima to brew its sake.
It is not like some regional appellations for wine that require the use of a specific Cépage grown within the region. In this aspect, it differs from Champagne which cannot be qualified as such if it is made of Grenache or Riesling, regardless of whether it matured in Champagne.
This is why the water from the local source, which directly influences the taste of sake and its creation process, is a better marker of the Terroir than rice. Unlike bagged grains that travel, the water source is linked to the estate.
A first AOC
Due to many cases of counterfeiters claiming to sell Niigata sake, in 1997 the Niigata Brewers Association created a Controlled Designation of Origin (AOC).
To carry the seal, the sake must:
1. Be made only from rice grown in Niigata Prefecture;
2. Be brewed in Niigata;
3. Use a Niigata water source;
4. Be a special designation sake with a polish rate of less than 60%;
5. And receive approval from the quality control committee.
By requiring that rice be grown in Niigata, the AOC almost disqualifies the use of Yamadanishiki; its development is too slow for the short summer of Niigata. The Gohykumankoku, on the other hand, can hardly meet the fourth requirement of its polish rate being under 60%, due to its Shimpaku being big and fragile.
It is not a coincidence that a few years later transplanting of Koshitanrei began in the rice fields of Niigata.
Koshitanrei, born in 2004 from a cross between Yamadanishiki and Gohyakumangoku, grows almost exclusively in this prefecture. In the paddy field, it flourishes like Gohykumankoku and has the advantages of Yamadanishiki at the mill and in the vats. By inheriting the best of both parents, this Sakamai is perfect for meeting AOC requirements.
Six Geographical Indications
Since then, the National Taxation Agency of Japan has recognized six Protected Geographical Indications for certain sakes, all of whose ingredients come from their respective regions. These regions are: Hakusan (2005), Yamagata (2016), Nada Gobo (2018), Harima (2020), Mie (2020), and Tone Numata (2021).
One day, we may be able to associate the sake of a region with a particular Sakamai in the same way we link specific grape varieties to certain AOCs
Above all, giving special mention to sakes made solely with ingredients from the Kura’s neighbourhood promotes communal relationships.