Hubert Burda Media

A Man’s Domaine

Can one young kuramoto make the world of sake less baffling to western drinkers?

It is home to Drops of God, a manga so well-received it even thrusted little known French wines into oenological stardom. In Yamanashi prefecture, a clutch of family-owned wineries are cultivating both European varietals and the local koshu grape. It even has one of the highest concentrations of sommeliers in the world. Clearly, Japan loves its wine.
Takahiro Nagayama, 40, is particularly partial to organic wines, believing that it is better for the eco-system. But even though laid out in front of us today is an entire series of Bordeaux-style stemware, and he has been talking about terroir, domaines, vintages and grand crus for the last half-hour, what we’ve really been swirling, nosing and tasting is nihonshu, or rather, sake.
Nagayama is a fourth-generation kuramoto (brewery owner) from Ube city in Yamaguchi prefecture and one of a new breed of sake ambassadors demystifying his local brew for the vino-drinking world. His family’s Nagayama Honke Brewery was founded in 1888, and is housed in Ube’s old city hall (his great-grandfather was mayor). After university in Vancouver, Canada, he studied at Japan’s National Research Institute of Brewing before joining the family business in 1997 — but to his father’s disappoint, as a brewer. Brewery owners do not make sake, he was reminded: They hire a toji (master brewer). “But making sake myself and telling people about my sake became so fun for me,” says Nagayama.
In any case, he was appointed toji in 2001, the same year he launched his premium Taka brand of “Domaine style” sake. “Domaine” because unlike most breweries that buy their rice from farmers — like how négociants purchase grapes and make a wine under their own name — the sake is made from rice that he personally cultivates in a 3-ha plot near the brewery. “A brewer must have intimate knowledge of the fields and quality of the rice. That’s why I grow my own,” says Nagayama, who has farmed the Yamadanishiki varietal since 1998. He describes this coveted sake rice as a “premier grand cru” as compared to, for example, the “grand cru” Hattannishiki grain. (Whether he styled his terminology after the Saint-Émilion or Burgundy classification system, I didn’t ask.) His “terroir” is the calcium-rich water that streams down from Akiyoshido Mountain.
Cultivating his own rice also ensures that Nagayama is aware of the specificities of each growing season, because the maverick in him has decided to make vintage sake, unlike most tojis who traditionally replicate the house-style year after year, bottle after bottle. As with vintage champagne (where the wine comes from a single harvest and therefore varies in character year to year), Nagayama strives for sakes with individual personality. The 2011 Taka Yamahai Junmai Daiginjo that we’ve been studying in a standard red wine glass, for instance, has a nose of apples, is medium-bodied with good acidity, and a long finish that goes well with salmon or fatty pork. The 2007, on the other hand, has aromas of dried apples and lilies. And while, yes, sake is typically intended for drinking at its freshest, the eight-year-old which Nagayama bottle ages at 5 degrees C is positively lovely.
“It’s like a white burgundy,” says Nagayama. “A normal vintage can be aged for five years, while bigger vintages can be aged for 10 years. Aged sake is a luxury item in Japan.” A small percentage of brewers do specialise in koshu (aged) sake which can range in style from clean and pure to those with even soy sauce or caramel flavours.
But while Nagayama may be one of the rare sake owners to release the sakamai (sake rice) vintage emblazoned prominently on the front of his bottles, he isn’t walking entirely to the beat of his own taiko. All bottles do list the date a sake left its brewery (rather than when it was made) on its back label, but according to the Japanese calendar. “Nobody can understand it in the overseas market, so I express the rice vintage using the Gregorian calendar,” says Nagayama.
The use of wine jargon, and even the Western calendar, if for no other reason, is at least good for education. “People do know sake is made of rice, but other than that it is difficult to understand. If we are to expand its following in the international market, wine terms are appropriate for getting through to the sommeliers who will then evangelise to the public. We need to tell our story to the world,” says Nagayama.