Thursday, August 24, 2017

The best sakes on the market: results from the US National Sake Appraisal

Before tasting 352 sakes in a day (see below)
Here's one way in which Japanese sake is better than wine: the floor is higher. You may never taste really terrible wines today* because gatekeepers like shop owners and sommeliers keep them out, but objectively bad wines exist and anyone who judges wine competitions knows it.

(* Pipe down, natural wine haters. Some people like them.)

I was one of 10 judges earlier this month at the US National Sake Appraisal in Honolulu. We tasted 381 sakes, all of them commercially available (this is not the case with most sake competitions in Japan.) I wrote for Palate Press about an important trend I discovered -- that Daiginjos are getting sweeter and Junmais are getting drier. Here I want to highlight a few of the outstanding sakes we tasted, and where you can buy them.

First of all, here is the competition results page. You'll note that unlike with wine competitions, even the sakes that did not win an award are listed, so you don't have to ask if we tasted your favorite.

From that list, the two Benten Junmais that finished first and third in the category were a revelation: outstanding and a great example of the impact of different rice strains, because the nicknames (Dewanosato and Tsuyahime) are names of the types of rice. The bad news is that neither of these sakes is currently available in the US. Sorry. Good news is that a longtime personal favorite of mine, Dewazakura Dewasansan Yamagata Junmai Ginjo, took third place in the Ginjo category and is widely available for about $36; buy it here.

My own notes on sakes I tasted during the competition aren't very good because tasting 352 on day 1 was overwhelming. I gave 9 of those sakes the highest possible score, but some didn't make the medal round because other judges didn't like them as much (I think I liked drier sakes than the average judge), and honestly, some sakes I didn't like quite as much the next day on retaste.

Here are some sakes I singled out with extremely high scores on both tastings:




After tasting 352 sakes in a day
Kiyoizumi "Nanadaime" Niigata Ginjo: I would be remiss not to mention I gave this the highest possible score on both tastings, but so sorry, not available in the U.S. It did get a gold medal.

Tedorigawa "Shukon" Ishikawa Junmai Ginjo (gold medal) and
Tedorigawa Ishikawa Yamahai Junmai (gold medal): The Tedorigawa sakes were a revelation to me. Ishikawa prefecture is seaside and the sakes tend to have a little saltiness to them, which I found delightful. The Ginjo's not in the US, but you can buy the Yamahai Junmai for under $30 here.

Matsunoi "Wishing Well" Niigata Tokubetsu Junmai (silver medal): Complex and savory, and you can buy it for about $30 here.

I don't remember tasting Momokawa "Murai Family" Sugidama Aomori Junmai Ginjo, but as it took second place overall in its category and it's widely available in the US for under $25, so you should check it out. You can buy it here. Momokawa, which also took second overall in the Daiginjo B category (less polished), also makes sake in Oregon and it's interesting that it didn't enter any of those in this competition. Some day some U.S. producer is going to win a silver and then we'll get breathless press releases about it.

I did taste the beautifully bottled Azure Kochi Junmai Ginjo that won the category, and I was pleasantly surprised because my experience with sakes in such stylized packaging hasn't been great. It's a clean, fresh sake that's worth the $40 price (buy it here) and might make a nice gift because it  looks so cool. Tell the recipient it doesn't get better with age, so refrigerate it, drink it, then reuse the blue bottle.

I wish I could recommend more based on the competition, as there were dozens of sakes I loved, but note-taking was difficult; sorry. In general, though, spending $30 on a sake is a safer investment than $30 on a wine: you wouldn't believe some of the crud I've tasted at that price level in wine competitions. In Hawaii we tasted a lotttttt of sake -- you can see it in my face -- but at least the quality was high.

Read the Palate Press story, which I believe has not been previously reported in English, 
about how ginjos are getting sweeter and junmais are getting drier, and I can prove it statistically

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1 comment:

Hana Aoi said...

Sorry to hear that you had to taste over 300 sake in a day.
Thank you for the recommendation!