This year’s pick for some of the world’s best sakes pair nicely with western cuisine, say pundits at the International Wine Challenge 2018

On July 10, at the world’s largest sake competition, International Wine Challenge (IWC) 2018, Adatara Ginjo was crowned the year’s champion sake. Selected by 59 experts from 15 countries, it topped a world-class line-up of 1,639 labels across all varieties of sake.

Its producer, Okunomatsu-shuzou, was established in 1716 in Fukushima prefecture, but it has grown to embrace a rather unorthodox process. As its 19th generation sake maker, George Yusa reveals, this winning sake is made using wine yeast and is the only label in their portfolio of 240 types of sake to do so.

“It was 30 years ago that my father brought back wine yeast, and cultivated it at our brewery,” Yusa shares, adding that it was only 10 years after that the brewery began using this yeast to make this sake.

He affirms the importance of yeast in the sake making process and how this specific type of fermentation (using wine yeast) “creates a very unique aroma”.

Normally, koji-yeast is used to make sake, and is originally extracted from native yeast that live in sake breweries; there are even sake makers who prefer to use yeast cultivated in their own brewery. Fact is, the use of wine yeast to make sake is extremely rare.

One of the judges, Antony Moss, Master of Wine, from the UK describes the aroma as that of “tropical fruits, like mango”, adding that it would go well with aromatic herbs, such as basil. “I’d recommend to pair this with Italian cuisine,” he declares.    

Yusa adds: “Actually, this sake is one of our bestsellers in Japan; the younger generation is familiar with western cuisine and that might be the reason this sake is so popular in the Japanese market as well.”

It also begs the question: Could the use of wine yeast become more popular in the future?

Adatara ginjo is not a junmai type of sake, as distilled alcohol is added. It is also low in acidity, but pundits like Moss say this stronger impression of alcohol is what cleanses the palate and removes fishy or gamy smells when enjoyed with food.

That being said, the more aromatic koji-yeast sake is the current trend across the globe. Its fruity and floral aroma is similar to that of white wine and is understandably more universally appealing, even if the consumer isn’t used to aroma of rice.

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Above Okunomatsu-shuzou's Adatara ginjo is the only sake in the brewery's portfolio that uses wine yeast.

Another Winner The French Will Love

The competition also honoured Tohoku Meijo from the Yamagata prefecture, with the “Sake brewer of the year” award, which is given to the brewer with the best overall results.

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Above Tohoku Meijo's Hatsumago densyo kimoto was named the best in the Honjonzo category.

This producer only uses the traditional Kimoto method of brewing. And among the many medals and trophies it had earned at the competition—including six gold medals and a trophy for sake maker Hideyuki Goto—is a trophy in the Honjozo category that is awarded to its “Hatsumago densyo kimoto” sake.

Interestingly, this sake is said to have aromas like Panettone, butter, natural bread starter and raisins, and complexity of flavour, which is why it pairs well with cream-based western dishes.

Goto even recommends pairing their Kimoto sakes with French cuisine.

The Kimoto method involves a slow fermentation process using native lactic acid bacteria, as opposed to using ready-made lactic acid. And it's this longer fermentation period that gives the sake complexity of aroma and flavour. Lactic acid bacteria also produces dairy aroma, such as butter, yoghurt or cheese and sometimes some acidity as well.

The International Wine Challenge, which was established in 1984 in London, launched its sake competition in 2007. Normally, the judging process is done in London, but this year’s judging event was held in Yamagata in May. This encouraged breweries like Tohoku Meijo that had never joined before to enter their sake for the competition.

The award ceremony and dinner was held at Grosvenor House, A JW Marriott Hotel, attended by more than 700 guests.

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