By Hiroshi SAKURAI, April 2021
As you may have already read in the news section on our website, we will be releasing from April a limited edition of Dassai - made from Yamada Nishiki specifically grown in various prefectures. Dassai sources between 9,000 and 10,000 tons of Yamada Nishiki rice from 20 prefectures across Japan. The production area is centered in Hyogo Prefecture and stretches from Kumamoto in the south to Miyagi in the north. Of course, we also get a supply of over 1,000 tons from Yamaguchi Prefecture.
The rice is all of the Yamada Nishiki variety, so one may think it look the same, but when you compare them, they are actually different. The differences are not only due to the year of harvest, but also to the growing regions. Over the last few years, the Yamada Nishiki rice has generally become firmer, and this is especially true in the eastern regions.
We craft Dassai solely from Yamada Nishiki, which quality varies from year to year and region to region. However, we don't just accept that different years produce different results, like it’s the case for wine. To compensate, it’s a matter of adjusting water absorption rates, koji, fermentation processes and so on.
This is where the difference between wine and sake lies. The fact is, the “technique” is of equal importance for sake as "origin of the grapes" is for wine. As far as I have been told, the most important factors that influence the quality of wines are, first of all, where the grapes are grown, then what the variety is, and lastly, who made the wine (i.e. the technique). (NB.)
In the case of sake, however, the technique comes first, followed by the variety of the rice, and then the origin of the rice. In other words, the order is the exact opposite.
It does not matter where the Yamada Nishiki comes from. It takes a certain amount of skill to make a good Dassai out of Yamada Nishiki, which varies slightly from region to region. This is because the subtle differences in the production of Yamada Nishiki end up in unique, and sometimes unfortunately flawed, results.
For example, a Yamada-Nishiki rice could be firm yet easily dissolves, and once dissolved, is nicely converted into sugar and alcohol, while there might be Yamada-Nishiki that appears to dissolve, yet it does not allow for a good conversion to sugar or alcohol.
This year's Yamada Nishiki is very different from one region to the next: so being rice from Fukuoka, Hyogo or Tochigi, all have respectively suitable koji or fermentation processes.
Are we going to “adjust all these differences, crafting the same Dassai, based on our excellent techniques”???
No, it can't be! We can't just craft the same Dassai! If we would want to, we would have to be to accept a very low quality level on the finished sake. Yes, if everyone is fine with a 70/100 sake, we might be able to do that. But if we are to aim for a 98/100 Dassai, then we have to allow for the differences that appear at the end.
And that's the whole point of having people working hard with a natural product such as rice. Dassai will always wear the differences of the year and the region the rice comes from. In other words, education may change a person, but what kind of environment a person is born into is what makes him or her unique, isn't it? It's inevitable, and you can't help but marvel at the fragrant character of those who have overcome their environment.
On a different note… for a long time now I've heard people say things like: "we only use local rice" or "we only use Yamada Nishiki grown in the special A district of Hyogo Prefecture". But from a technical point of view, or from the point of view of Dassai – where we try to have all the elements in place to make good sake, I felt somehow uncomfortable.
I was thinking, what if the rice grown locally isn't good enough? I mean, the best rice in this year's Yamada Nishiki contest was from Amagi in Fukuoka. Still, I have to admit Hyogo's special A district rice is good, and yet that's not enough... That’s when one of my staff came up with the idea of this “Local Dassai” project.
We've done our best to release a Dassai that embraces the differences between the different prefectures, rather than just saying “this rice is this way, so we can’t help it”. We've decided that it makes sense to have a lineup of Dassai that are slightly different from each other. This is how the “Local Dassai” project began.
We will start with rice from Fukuoka Prefecture in April. Basically, we plan on having it only be sold within that prefecture but, if you see it on the shelves please do try it out. If you're not in the area and want to try it, please contact your local Dassai dealer. If we have it in stock at the time, we will do our best to get it to you, although it may take some time.
(Note: However, actually talking to wine producers you find out how important the so-called "techniques" are, apart from what is generally said. It seems to me that this is the same thing that Dassai is saying about the importance of the region of origin, which for us is positioned as the least important factor in terms of qualitative influence on the product.)