Richard Geoffroy unleashes his playful side with his latest masterpiece, as he walks us through his disruptive process and thoughts on Japan’s sake industry

Richard Geoffroy did not deliberately set out to break the mould of sake when he started his journey in 2019. He wasn’t looking to take his Champagne blending techniques to Japan wholesale. “The end result is something that reminds me of wine, but that is not the intention per se,” he tells Tatler Dining over a morning tête-à-tête before conducting a masterclass for sommeliers taking place at 67 Pall Mall Singapore.

When Geoffroy retired from Dom Perignon after 28 years as its chef de cave (cellarmaster), he started with a blank slate in Japan, calling it his version of a start-up. Together with local partner Ryuichiro Masuda of Masuda Shuzo in Toyama, he brought in more partners, bought some land, built a brewery and eventually assembled a staff team of gaijin (foreigners). It helped that the worldly and open-minded Masuda-san is a bit of a maverick himself—he has innovated on sake-infused Kit Kat and sake aged in Chivas Regal whisky barrels. In 2019, their company Shiraiwa debuted IWA 5 Assemblage 1, a groundbreaking blended sake using three varieties of rice, five strains of yeast and a complex fermentation process.

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Although Assemblage 1 was released in 2020 and Assemblage 2 in 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic had prevented Geoffroy from travelling and marketing the sake internationally. His delayed visit to Singapore now presents an unwitting new dimension to his creations—tasting the three-year-aged Assemblage 1 alongside 2 and 3. And yes, we discover that IWA 5 has the ability to age in the bottle, yet another parallel to the wines he used to blend.

Assemblage 1 is now deeply rounded and mellow, with lime and grapefruit notes enticing the palate to create a sense of mid-palate and finish. His personal interpretation of sake brings more verdancy, or greenness, he is fond of saying. Assemblage 2 has a more floral and aromatic character, displaying a faint ripe banana aroma on the nose and more texture on the tongue. Meanwhile, the highly anticipated Assemblage 3 has the same signature white pepper nose as the previous two, this time leading to a racy, silky mouthfeel that comes across youthful and energetic. It pairs winsomely with slightly sour-tangy Peranakan dishes from Candlenut, such as the blue swimmer crab with turmeric curry.  

Voila! is the Frenchman’s signature phrase. Experimentation is his calling card, striving to vary the results of each Assemblage every year, using the yeast fermentations to adjust the structure, intensity, spice and persistence of the blend. It is a kind of playfulness, one which he describes as such: “When you have 30 sake elements on the bench, it looks like 50 shades of white. That’s what I call it. I don’t look at the analyses and I never write anything down. I taste it and I assemble the pieces together to make it profoundly Japanese and of great appeal—that’s IWA’s ambition. Voila!”

A gaijin who makes sake

There are a few observations that Geoffroy wishes to share. One, that sake is too cheap. “It is so complicated to make, and it’s unfair—so many of the producers cannot make a decent living,” he commiserates. Looking around cheekily, he adds conspiratorially that he thinks making sake is more complicated than making Champagne, due to the levels of microbiological yeast action involved. 

Two, the sake industry is changing, whether the industry is willing or not to accept those changes. With sake consumption falling in Japan and the number of breweries shrinking by two-thirds, he opines that producers have to look outside of Japan and therefore understand how to make their sake more universal, in order to sell their wares.

On that note, he pauses to ask somewhat rhetorically, what makes for great wine or food? It is the capacity to be exported, he expounds. “Proudly and uncompromisingly local and yet exportable.”

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His blending methods at IWA 5 have attracted attention, and in two years since there are now up to 10 blended sakes on the market. “I’m only trying to make something for IWA, this only shows one way of making things,” he says modestly.   

There was no eureka moment where Geoffroy realised blending was the key to the new sake craft (method). It was gradually over a couple years, when he was testing individual brews on the bench with Masuda-san, that they realised they couldn’t achieve their vision through any one single brew. “It was a somewhat objective conclusion. It wasn’t just because I was blending in Champagne, so I will also blend in Japan, the process had to make sense,” insists Geoffroy. After finalising Assemblage 1 in Masuda’s brewery, Assemblages 2 and 3 were finalised in his home in Champagne, while Assemblage 4 has been made and finalised at the new Shiraiwa distillery in Toyama and will be bottled-aged longer (12 to 15 months) for release next year.

He reflects on the ideas that he brings from the wine world to sake, “Champagne is the most versatile in the world of wine, but IWA 5 goes so much further. IWA 5 is so complete, balanced and complex, it can respond to any situation. Whether Asian, Peranakan, or other.” In France, his team is in the process of signing up IWA 5 with 10 Michelin-starred restaurants, none of them having an Asian influence.

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“If you look at Champagne, the new generation of independent vignerons are experimenting like crazy. To me, the period of people liking the same blends is over; it is now about variation and character. It is happening in sake,” Geoffroy says.

“I can master Assemblage well enough to make it vary every year, forever,” he asserts. “This project is forever—there will be someone after me, and somebody after. Voila!”

IWA 5 Assemblage 3 is available for retail from iwa-sake.sg and at select restaurants such as Esora, Jaan By Kirk Westaway and Waku Ghin.

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