Of all the countries outside Europe I would say my favourite has to be Japan. Somehow I find I have an affinity with so much about Japan (though certainly not every aspect of Japanese society). It might surprise British readers who have never visited that so much about this country, however exotic it might seem from a distance, feels not all that removed from the many aspects of our own society. It’s also a country which is far less difficult to navigate, at least in a literal sense, than you would think. But in another sense, Japan is two countries. There is an amazing welcome waiting for you as a tourist, but there is also a very private Japan, where the tourist is unlikely to penetrate without a strong connection.
Sake is a little like that. I’ve visited Japan four times, and every time I’ve got to know sake a little better, yet as with the Japanese language, when it comes to anything deeper than superficial knowledge I have made slow progress. I’m a little further ahead with Japanese wine. After all, wine is my background, and ever since I was aware of Japanese table wines on the UK market I went out of my way to find them. In Japan my first efforts were tentative, hindered once more by my inability to read Japanese script, but now I have broken through the barrier to visit my first vineyards. I hope to do more on my next trip.
You will imagine how happy I was when I heard that established wine writer, Anthony Rose, himself something of a sake expert, has written a book on both subjects. I read this eagerly a month ago, and it has only now found a slot in my schedule for me to write a review.
On first sight this paperback/softbound book looks rather like a textbook. As part of the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, a relatively new series with approaching twenty titles currently, its production values could be described as “no nonsense”. Photos and diagrams throughout are all in monochrome, save for a nice eight page insert of colour photographs in the middle. But the text is clearly set out.
Where the book scores is that as well as containing at least three of four times as much information as your average coffee table book on the subject of sake, Rose writes in an engaging and easy-to-read style. As well as being a British expert, he’s so obviously a massive enthusiast. That enthusiasm comes through, and it is central to helping the reader assimilate some complex and difficult knowledge…as well as unfamiliar language and culture.
As you would expect, there’s a good bit of welcome history, an explanation of what exactly sake is and how it is made, along with explanations for the myriad styles of this rice alcohol (you’ll learn a lot about rice along the way). Naturally there is also the obligatory chapter on how to enjoy it. But there’s also a lot of up-to-date information about “Sake‘s New Wave”, the movement making sake great again (including the debunking of certain snobbish attitudes towards sake and its different styles prevalent both inside and outside Japan). There’s also a chapter containing details of sake production outside of Japan, in Australia, the UK, Norway, Spain and the USA (I’ve yet to visit London’s sake brewery, Kanpai, in Peckham, but it’s on my list).
A large part of the book, around a third, is taken over by entries for the main sake breweries in Japan. As well as providing essential information for the visitor, I suspect the real interest here for the reader who is unlikely to spend as much time visiting breweries as Rose, is reading about those breweries whose sakes we can find and taste in our own country, especially as this beverage is currently generating something of a surge on export markets, just as it is finding its renaissance in Japan.
There is a highly useful glossary of terms at the back of the book. To get to grips with this drink you really need to know your Daiginjō from your Junmai and your Nigori from your Genshu. I’ve written myself a list to learn.
The section on the Wines of Japan at first looks a bit like an add-on, but that is not the case. There are still around ninety pages on grape wine in a book of 340+ pages, plus appendices. This section is divided into a useful short chapter on history, grape varieties etc, including very useful paragraphs on visiting Japan’s main wine regions, something you really should try to do if you have the chance – where I have been they are as beautiful as any in Europe, especially those near Nagano on the edge of the Japan Alps.
The rest of the wine section is made up of profiles of the major Japanese wine producers, from the larger companies making wine that you might have found in a UK supermarket (Sol Lucet Koshu in Marks & Spencer), to small boutique producers making wine of superb quality which fly under the radar outside Japan, if indeed they have international distribution.
The Japanese wine industry is going through rapid change right now. First of all, increasingly, quality is being recognised. Japan grows a lot of hybrid varieties (vinifera and labrusca crosses on the whole, such as Delaware, Concord plus the home grown Muscat Bailey A, a red variety, and Kyohō), but a surprising number of European vinifera grapes make (generally) far more successful wine. Some of these are proving successful as site identification improves.
Chardonnay now makes up 5% of plantings and has a bright future, but other less well known varieties are making exciting wines in pockets. Look out for Kerner, Zweigelt, Merlot and (as I have tasted) rather good Albariño and Petit Manseng at Domaine Sogga (Obuse, Nagano). Rose also nicely identifies the potential for Cabernet Franc.
That said, anyone wishing to explore Japanese wine cannot fail to seek out Japan’s native grape variety, Koshu. It’s without doubt the vinifera variety people associate with Japan. It has a thick pink skin, and was originally prized as a table grape (Japan does table grapes oh so well, as any visitor to a Tokyo food store will notice). It takes up 16% of the Japanese vineyard but that is still just under 500 hectares, most of which are in Yamanashi Prefecture (in the Chūbu Region, southwest of Tokyo).
If seriously over-cropped, Koshu can be pretty dilute and nondescript. I’m also not convinced that new oak is the way to go. But when the site is well chosen and yields are within reason (which may not mean “low” in a European context), it makes a lovely fresh, dry wine with nice, almost exotic, fruit concentration. Expect a little salinity as well, to add a touch of complexity, but if you are holding a good glass it will almost certainly possess a genuine purity which you notice.
Koshu has real potential because it can turn its hand to a variety of styles, including sparkling wines, which have only really taken their first steps in Japan, as indeed has sparkling sake.
There are plenty of experiments with organic and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking in Japan (cf the aforementioned Domaine Sogga, run by the self-deprecating but supremely talented Akihiko Soga…for some reason his name has one “g” and the domaine two). There is massive interest in natural wines in Japan, and in Tokyo you will find plenty of European unicorns. The Japanese are the masters of discerning food and drink consumption, and there are bound to be more experiments in this direction.
However, the enemy is the climate. For example, if you visit vineyards in summer you will marvel at thousands of small waxed paper umbrellas which cover every bunch of grapes. These protect the grapes from harvest rains, and in fact without them rot would be far more rife. This means, inevitably, that synthetic chemical applications, and indeed chaptalisation, is widespread. There’s also an unhealthy worship of the new barrique in some quarters. Yet given all that, there’s massive potential in Japan and the Japanese are innovative enough that we can be sure of some very exciting discoveries to come.
These are the rather beautiful waxed paper umbrellas which protect grapes from the summer rains in most of Japan’s major vineyard regions.
In summary, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Of course, if you plan to visit Japan I’d say it’s essential reading for any drinks lover. There is, I should add, a really useful “Guide to Japan” (Chapter 10), which includes an illuminating introduction (Navigating Japan) and a guide to Tokyo restaurants, bars etc, for finding sake and Japanese wine. It’s more focused on the sort of places you and I would enjoy than those in more general guidebooks. But at the end of the day it’s as much an enjoyable read as a source of invaluable information. It joins that select bunch of drinks books which I know I shall read again, certainly before what I hope will be my fifth visit to Japan in 2020.
Sake and the Wines of Japan by Anthony Rose is published by Infinite Ideas (2018, 380pp, £30).
If you want to discover sake of all styles in the UK it has become far easier in the past five or six years. I began my journey at The Japan Centre, near London’s Piccadilly Circus, but a number of wine merchants and department stores in the capital stock a selection. Quantities of the best sake are not high on export markets, and neither are prices low, but there’s a small selection out there. Some London wine merchants, including small independents, are getting on the sake bandwagon, although some stick doggedly to Japanese spirits. I think we’ll see many more in the next year or so.
This was the enormous sake table at the recent London Wine Fair. The IWC’s International Sake Challenge takes place in Tokyo every year and Anthony Rose is Co-Chair. I would have needed a whole day to make inroads on these.
At least quantities for sake are not quite so tiny as they are for the best Japanese table wines. You may need to search hard for these, but you can find some of the wines from the larger producers without too much aggravation. I mentioned that Marks & Spencer sold a Koshu (Sol Lucet from Kurambon Winery, Yamanashi) which apparently went down well with customers, but I don’t see it right now on their web site. It may be ever so slightly pedestrian, yet it’s a perfect bottle with which to dip your toe in, and I hope they haven’t delisted it.
For around double the price Selfridges usually have one of Grace Wines’ Koshus, Kayagatake (£22). For other wines I’m loath to recommend any companies which I’ve not dealt with. Aside from Selfridges, the places you might expect to find some (Hedonism, Harrods, Fortnums) all fail to list any.
If you want to get to learn more about sake then I understand that Anthony Rose and Christine Parkinson run occasional courses at Sake No Hana in St James’s Street, London (where Christine is Group Head of Wine for the Hakkasan Group). The next Masterclass is on 20 July, with a final event for 2019 on 19 October. Frustratingly, I can’t make either, but I do plan to attend one as soon as dates work out. Cost is currently £72 per person, and includes a tasting of various sake styles, lunch and a gift bag of goodies. If interested, follow the link here. Then follow the link within that page for more information.