The translation of “NanbuBijin” into Southern Beauty may look somewhat misleading for a nihonshu actually brewed in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, located at the Northern tip of Honshu island, a cold and snowy region in winter(*). However, a beauty it is, and an important kura in my sake education. In March 2011, after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, at the time the first sakura flowers were blossoming, the Japanese authorities called for restraint from the population in hanami parties (where and when people gather under the sakura trees in full bloom), as a show of respect for the victims and those mourning. Keisuke Kuji, head of the brewery, uploaded on Youtube an emotionnally moving video, that attracted a lot of attention. From his damaged brewery, he invited people to do the opposite, and party with Tohoku sake to encourage the region and contribute to its renaissance. I truly believe this video did a lot for Tohoku sake, and I met a few people in Tokyo who discovered or re-discovered the product at this occasion.
Nanbubijin is producing a large number of references, allowing the sake learner to compare two or three different bottles where one parameter only differs (rice or yeast, or pasteurization, etc.). John Gauntner has been working with Kuji san for many years to prepare the tastings of his sake teaching courses. Another reason for my respect …
The impressive collection of prizes collected by the Nanbubijin sake on the national or international scene is a sign that the company’s moto “品質一筋” (something like “Resolutely Qualitative Sake”), is not treated lightly.
Last night, during a Sake2020 event, we had the chance to hear from Kuji san and taste his traditional Tokubetsu Junmai (Special Junmai) brewed from the rather confidential (outside Tohoku at least) Gin-otome sake rice. It won the Tokubetsu Junmai prize category as well as the overall sake champion prize at the London held International Wine Challenge competition earlier this year. Despite this award, price in Japan was not moved: you can enjoy an IWC champion sake for JPY 1620 (12 euros) per 720 ml bottle! This sake is smooth to creamy, gentle, mildly aromatic, perfectly balanced and will support many styles of food.
Talking about elegance, we enjoyed a gold prize winner at the National New Sake Competition in Japan this year as well. Gravity is the only force that pulled the sake drops from bags filled with moromi (the fermenting mash) and hung by the neck. Made from highly polished Yamada Nishiki rice (35% seimaibuai, ie 35% of the mass is left after polishing), its fruity aromas gently fill the entire mouth and make a lasting impression. This “shuppinshu” (sake aimed for competition) is of Daiginjo class (a limited amount of alcohol was added at the end of the fermentation process). Maybe because I drink less of that type of sake, I can’t help noticing a slight bitterness as well, which can be associated with the acids produced by the yeast selected for the fermentation process. This invites me to recommend to pair such sake with a delicate dish.
It was fun to compare 3 identical bottles but for the rice used, and to discover an interesting umeshu (plum liquor). Unlike Aragoroshi, the Ume no Yado umeshu with plum puree in suspension that I am often proposing in my tastings, the Nanbubijin umeshu is light and therefore easy to pair. The green plums are left for one week only, in a tank filled with sake brewed from koji only. The whole rice used for brewing (as opposed to 15~25% in general) was inoculated with koji mold (aspergillus oryzae) so as to maximize the saccharification of the starch, allowing the brewer not to add any sweeteners to the blend. Kuji san explained that to the surprise of the workers in the kura the first year, such sake turns a nice pale pink (plums are green!)…
Kuji san is a real showman … and a great technician. He shared his view about some technicalities in the sake brewing process, pressing and pasteurization in particular, convincingly illustrating the impact of both the advances in technology and the evolution in the style of sake, on the process over the last 20 years. Thank you for the lesson.
(*) “Nanbu” (Southern Part) was the name given to the region in feudal Japan