On a recent balmy evening, representatives from nine sake breweries in Yamagata Prefecture, clad in understated kimono, bow modestly onstage amid the glow of pink and lavender lights. The bling-drenched ballroom also boasts gold-covered walls and a bold red carpet adorned with a dizzying pattern of colorful fans.
It is, at first glance, a somewhat incongruous juxtaposition, until I remember that I am at a sake-centric dinner in the extravagant Wynn Palace Cotai in the semiautonomous city-state of Macao, far from the austere mountains of Yamagata Prefecture.
Kenichi Ohashi, Japan’s only certified Master of Wine, informs the audience that the group of brewers collectively received 17 trophies and gold medals in the 2018 International Wine Challenge (IWC) sake competition, and notes that the Yamagata region has garnered the highest number of awards in the 12 years since the sake division was first introduced in the prestigious competition. My dining companions, wine writers from Hong Kong, murmur appreciatively as they sip soft and fruity Kumano no Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo with bites of marinated salmon in dashi gelee.
The dinner — which features Michelin-starred guest chefs Kazuo Takagi, of Kyoto Cuisine Takagi, and Michihiro Haruta from Tokyo’s Crony, together with Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants award-winning chef Tam Kwok Fung of Wynn Palace’s Wing Lei Palace — is part of a two-day series of events organized by the IWC to promote sake in Macao, an increasingly important market for the Japanese drink in China. Last year, the organization hosted a similar sake event.
“In terms of volume, (Macao is) still small compared to Hong Kong, but it’s growing, and sales are high value,” says Paco Galdeano, executive director of beverage operations of Wynn Macau and Wynn Palace.
This year’s program showcases Yamagata Prefecture, which hosted the IWC sake competition in 2018. Events kicked off with a public tasting of the region’s gold and trophy medalists, attracting industry professionals from Hong Kong and mainland China.
The tasting, says Hong Kong-based sake educator Benny Lee, offers a chance to sample brews that are not yet imported into China and scan for potential sake trends among the top winners. The Yamagata lineup includes three trophy medalists (Kumano no Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo, Fumotoi Junmai Ginjo Yamadanishiki and Hatsumago Densho Kimoto), chosen from the gold-medal sake winners by IWC panel chairs in blind tastings. IWC Sake Brewer of the Year 2018 Tohoku Meijo, producer of the Hatsumago label, joins the list of IWC 2019 trophy winners again this year with the company’s Hatsumago Fuyu no Kanon Ginjoshu.
Later, Master of Wine Kenichi Ohashi delivers a seminar and workshop on the evolution of Yamagata’s sake industry, describing the development of local sake rice strains — Dewasansan, Dewanosato, Dewakirari and the latest variety, Yukimegami, which was released in 2015. Export volume from the region has increased markedly, rising to roughly 450 kiloliters in 2017, thanks in part to research groups that study sake yeast production, rice cultivation and maturation techniques.
Experimentation has resulted in innovations such as the use of malolactic fermentation to create a line of Yamagata brews with softer acidity. Last year, the prefecture became the first sake-producing region to receive its own geographic indication (GI), which industry insiders hope will help increase the drink’s visibility overseas.
“I was impressed by all of the developments in Yamagata,” Ohashi says. “Surely, it contributes to the sake industry as a whole.”
Unfortunately, Yamagata-area sake missed out on the ultimate award this year, with Miyagi Prefecture’s Katsuyama Junmai Ginjo Ken named IWC Champion Sake 2019 on July 10.
For more information about the competition, visit bit.ly/iwc-sake.