Soul brothers

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How much in common can a Swiss winemaker based in Basel and a Japanese kuramoto  from Kamogata have? “Soul brothers! We share the same vision about our respective products, the same philosophy about our raw material and its cultivation” said Valentin Schiess. Soon this soul will have an avatar, since the former aims at brewing sake in Switzerland with the help of the latter.

As our latest podcast on Sake On Air discusses, 2018 was rich with new projects for sake brewing overseas…and in Japan. There may be about 40 “craft” brewery projects outside Japan now, not counting the further development of new private brands.

Following the 1945 defeat, Japan went through a drastic land reform inspired by the US administration, depriving corporations of their arable land. It offered the hope of a future for millions of people involved in farming and/or coming back from the frontlines, but created a major shock in the rice procurement of sake breweries, forced to relinquish control of how rice is grown (and what rice), and buy their raw material from a State owned cooperative. What a distance with most European wine makers!

Progressively in more recent times though, practices such as contracting with farmers directly, renting farm land and now even owning farm land, were made possible again for sake breweries.

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Marumoto san, the 6thgeneration head of Marumoto Shuzou, who describes himself as a rice farmer, started rice cultivation in 1987 (one of the pioneers amongst brewery owners), then went all the way to producing organic rice in the immediate vicinity of his beautiful kura, situated in the hills of Okayama Prefecture. He was one of the earliest ones (the first one amongst sake brewers) to receive an Organic Certification in 2009, followed by the certification of his sake for the European and U.S. markets. To be fair, certified organic rice only represents about 10% of his input, he explained, “far sufficient!”. This represents “a lot of work ….” (cultivation, monitoring at all stages to keep the certification).

Marumoto san believes in the benefits of the climate at the foot of Mount Chikurinji for their Yamada Nishiki. It must be special, since Chikurinji was chosen as the best place for astronomical observation in Japan. At the same time, the area is exposed to storms and bad weather. The proof came last summer, with the dramatic flooding in the Okayama, Kurashiki  & Hiroshima regions. About 1Ha of the fields Marumoto Shuzou cultivates ended up under water like their neighbors’. The damage to the fields was limited, but Marumoto san has lost his organic label for rice for one full year (field contamination through water). He will then get it back in absence of further contamination. Note that in general, rice farmers turning organic need to be patient 3 full years.

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Meanwhile Valentin Schiess, who had studied oenology and wine making in the 80’s at some early adopters of natural methods, had left his job to follow his passion in 2006: growing vine with biodynamic principles on the few parcels of land he could put his hand on in prestigious “Bunder Herrshaft” (Eastern Switzerland). He owns about 1 Ha. Since 2013, he has been making wine from their grape in his boutique winery in the urban center of Basel (Vinigma brand) and progressively ramping production up, renting a further 1.2 Ha of vineyard, and collaborating with more producers, reaching about 30,000 bottles under his Vinigma brand.  His raw material is cultivated with natural methods “whenever possible”.

Valentin Schiess had been nurturing a connection with Japan. An interesting anecdote is the story of his grand-parents who lived in pre-war Japan (his grand-father was a priest and researched Zen), bringing back memorabilia and familiar language expressions such as “Ah Sodesuka!” used in their daily life.

At a sake event in Europe in 2017, trained wine sommelier in charge of sales Madoka Haga (from Japan) got in touch with Matsuzaki san, on the forefront of the export of sake culture, member of our Sake2020 sake promotion NPO, and less than 2 years ago, here are we, gathered in Tokyo for a tasting of the highly enjoyable products made by both partners-to-be: red Jeninser 2015 made from Gamaret dried in fresh air for a few weeks, white Apriori 2017 from Humagne Blanche and Petite Arvine, two very old cepages in Valais on the one hand, Chikurin Karoyaka Junmaidaiginjo from Yamada Nishiki, stored and aged up to 3 years at -5 degrees, and Chikurin Karoyaka Organic sake on the other hand.

A ski accident prevented the partnership to take a more concrete form this year, but I will be following its development. I have always found exchanges between wine and sake specialists enriching. In addition, I will seize any opportunity to get close to the gorgeous landscapes these companies can offer their visitors as well…

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