How will a bottle of sake from Hyogo prefecture Himeji city perceived by someone well-versed in wine? How can one determine the style and flavor of the sake from the information stated on the bottle?
Sake brewers, of course, have considered how to amplify the perks of sake from different regions. Perhaps they can label their sake like how Europeans do with their wine (AOC, appellation d’origine contrôlée, “controlled designation of origin”).
There are six sake geographical indication (GI) systems to date. According to the chronological order, they are Hakusan, Nihonshu, Yamagata, Nadagogo, Harima, and Mie. Other than Yamagata and Mie, neither of them refer to other prefectures in Japan, nor do they have a specified demarcation criterion. The boundaries are considered vague and lean toward Japan’s history. That’s why the GI system is sometimes criticized and difficult-to-adapt. A GI system needs to be a benchmark also in flavor and style indication.
Taking “Nihonshu” as an example, all sake produced in Japan are categorized as Nishonshu. It gave absolutely nothing, say someone lives in Napa Valley, California wants to know more about the sake, in indicating the style or flavor of this specific sake.
Let’s look into “Yamagata” as another example. GI Yamagata sake has to use rice koji and rice made in Japan; use water collected in Yamagata prefecture, brewed and bottled in the prefecture. The requirements are straightforward and basic. However, the flavor of the sake is described as having a “silky and clear taste” and an aroma “reminiscent of apple, melon, and La France pears.”
A fruity aroma is still understandable, but a clear taste maybe too poetic to describe a sake. Without guidance and practice, it is difficult for one to comprehend why people adore “a clear taste”, isn’t it?
“Harima” includes twenty-two cities and towns in Hyogo prefecture. Not only Himeji city, it also includes cities that produce Special A Yamadanishiki like Miki city (三木市), Katou city (加東市), and Kasai city (加西市). The GI “Harima” also made it specific that sake has to use Yamadanishiki while brewing, which is a closer indicator to AOC that specified the varieties of grapes used.
However, rice cannot dictate the sake style like grapes in wine. Yamadanishiki is versatile and can brew limitless flavors. Textbooks often describe Yamadanishiki brew sake with rich flavors and an elegant demeanor, but that also takes experience in sake appreciation to comprehend.
After all, GI does not have a long history like AOC, nor does every region takes it as seriously as others. It takes tremendous human and financial resources to let people know the benefits of GI, let alone the administration effort in implementing the whole project. So what can GI bring to the Japanese sake industry? We may need a longer time to see how things unfold.
Based in Hong Kong / Official trainer of Dassai / Experienced sake educator (WSET, SSI) / JSA Sake Diploma / International sake judge