After looking at Kusumi Brewery’s Kiyoizumi Kame no O Tokubetsu Junmai it seemed only fair and balanced to give some props to Koikawa – the other brewery often lauded as the revivalists of the Kame no O rice variety. Not that this is a contest, far from it. As I said before I actually don’t really care which brewery was the first to bring Kame no O back, I just thought it’d be as good an excuse as any to look at another Kame no O sake.
Koikawa is located in Yamagata prefecture, just north of Niigata in the region known as Tohoku along with Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita and Fukushima. The Tohoku region is widely considered one of the powerhouse areas for quality sake. The cool winters and mountainous location provide some of the best conditions for sake brewing.
It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Koikawa without talking about Kame no O. Even their labels proclaim 亀の尾発祥地 “birthplace of Kame no O”. Koikawa are firm believers in the concept of of jizake (local sake). The most widely used rice variety, Yamadanishiki is predominantly grown in Western Hyogo so Koikawa proudly shuns it for their local Kame no O which they use for the majority of their sake. The Koikawa sake I’m enjoying today is their Kame Kijoujitsu Junmai Ginjo (bit of a mouthful). Firstly a bit of a caveat, the bottle I have is from 2010 so it’s not at it’s peak freshness by any means but I think it holds up well. First couple of glasses I had chilled (as I usually do with any Ginjo) and although it was good with some umami fullness and a soft smooth acidity I got that nagging feeling that warmed might be the go. Which incidentally is a good tip; If you ever come across a sake that isn’t quite doing it for you, give it a warm up and try it gradually as it cools to try and find its ideal drinking temperature. There really isn’t much bad sake out there in the Tokutei Meishoushu (Special Designation) level so don’t be too hasty in writing off a sake if it doesn’t grab you at first sip.
Sure enough after a few minutes on the stove I found a whole new sake. At the hot level the alcohol poked it’s head through a touch but as it dropped to around 40 degrees it showed some milky, chestnut aromas with a bit of poached pear. On the palate the balance came together beautifully. The fact that it was a coolish evening probably helped a bit but lets’s face it, warm sake on a cool night is awesome! Yeah, you could heat up some mulled wine or have big roasty stout on a winter night but you can’t beat o-kan. Even as it dropped to room temperature it held it’s balance much better than when it was chilled.
Kane no O is quite popular in Japan with serious drinkers and it’s probably fair to say that the breweries that bother to work with a rice variety not known for being as malleable as others are clearly doing it because they see something worthwhile and special in the variety and when the sake tastes this good I can see what attracts them to this mysterious rice.
Koikawa Kamejikoujitsu, Yamagata Prefecture
Seimaibuai 55% Kame no O rice
So, we know there are many different kinds of rice used in sake making called sakamai (酒米). Basically, these differ from regular table rice in that they are larger in grain and stalk size and have a higher starch content. Sake rice are all pretty much hybrids ie. varieties that have been cross-bred to create superior rice styles suitable for sake brewing-economically or practically.
But there are a few exceptions. Omachi is a fairly common rice that is a pure-bred variety. A rather distinctive rice that often has chestnut aromas and an earthy flavour. The other main pure bred rice is called Kame no O (亀の尾translates to Turtles Tail for what it’s worth. Comes from the appearance of the shoots).
Kame no O has been around for a very long time, at least since the 1800’s. It was used originally for eating as well as sake but fell out of favour to other cheaper, easier to grow economical rice. But it didn’t disappear completely. In 1980 the president of Niigata Prefecture brewery Kusumi, makers of Kiyoizumi, decided he wanted to brew a sake using the fabled Kame no O rice after hearing stories from his head brewer about how good it was ‘back in the day’. He obtained some seeds (a measly 1500 grains) from the Niigata Agricultural Research Centre and began cultivating Kame no O. What seemed liked a gamble at first, started to turn heads when in 1983 they released Kame no Okina Daiginjo. The rest of the sake world began to take notice and these days there are more than fifty breweries using Kame no O. They even had a Kame no O Summit in 2001 for all the brewers using Kame no O to get together and basically sing its praises.
Now, the Japanese love an underdog story, so in the land where there is a manga comic dedicated to just about anything and everything it probably wasn’t surprising when the Kusumi story of reviving Kame no O was adapted to a manga under the name “Natsuko No Sake” (Natsuko’s Sake). Not a particularly faithful reproduction of the story, it tells the tale of a young copy writer named Natsuko who returns to the family business of sake brewing and against all odds follows the dream of her dead brother to brew great sake using a forgotten rice strain (called tatsunishiki in the story). If that doesn’t sound corny enough, they even made it into a twelve part TV drama series. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry you didn’t miss much. Pretty much the same formula as every Japanese drama series: main character has a dream that everyone around them says is impossible, main character struggles, cries a lot and almost gives up but comes through in the end, awkwardly kisses the obligatory love interest and all the doubters admit they were wrong to ever question the human spirit-*yawn*
Of course every time someone comes up with something “original”, there’s always another who says they came up with it first. This story is no exception…..
Up in Yamagata Prefecture a brewery by the name of Koikawa claims they were growing Kame no O in 1979. Because the source for their Kame no O seedlings were also different, they of course claim their Kame no O is the true Kame no O, and of course Kusumi disagrees. Me? I dunno, as long everyone’s making good sake I don’t really care.
Unfortunately I don’t have the famous Daiginjo, but I do have a bottle of Kiyoizumi Tokubetsu Junmai made with Kame no O. Not an overly aromatic sake, it gives light aromas of white flowers and vanilla. Very low in acid and a somewhat slick mouthfeel helps it slide down a little too easy (as if there is such a thing). Delicate flavours or apple and melon on the palate, it’s a very pretty sake.
Sadly, Kiyoizumi is not available in Australia however, their arch nemesis Koikawa is available online through Sakenet . Get some!