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“International Wine Challenge: sake segment”

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Following the increase of sake’s popularity worldwide, the number of sake competitions has increased, such as Japan’s Zenkoku-Shinshu-Kanpyokai (National New Sake Appraising and Deliberating Fair) and the International Wine Challenge (IWC) outside Japan.In 2007, the sake segment was added to the IWC and the 2017 competition was held in London in May.Although the names of these competitions are well-known among the beverage industry, the purpose and procedure of these competitions are not well understood.IWC judge, Masakazu Minatomoto granted Sake Experience Japan an interview regarding his experiences at IWC 2017.

SEJ: Could you explain the purpose of evaluating sake and how it is evaluated in the IWC?

Minatomoto: This is my second time taking part in the IWC. The first time, I took part as a member of the Japan Sommelier Association (JSA). Because the venue was in Hyogo prefecture where our sake brewery is situated, I was also a host, looking after the judges on excursions. This year, I went London as a judge only, not as a judge and host, so I could focus on my judging role.

The IWC holds this competition to evaluate sake by segments like wine, enabling it to be accepted by the international market. It is because of this interest in the international market, only half of the judges are Japanese, and the other half are from other countries.

For the Master of Wine (MW), 60 people from 14 different countries gathered, 4 to 5 to a table, to commence evaluation. The judges from Japan include a technical officer of the National Tax Administration Agency [which classifies sake], a researcher of microorganisms, owners of specialty sake shops, sommeliers working at restaurants outside Japan and owners of sake shops in the international market. All are sake industry experts. It is rare that IWC appoints any judges from sake breweries, so [although I work at Shushinkan Sake Brewery] I took part in as a JSA Sommelier.

There are 9 different categories in the competition: “Futsu-shu”,“Honjozo”,“Ginjo”,“Dai-Ginjo”,“Junmai”,“Junmai-Ginjo”,“Junmai-Dai-Ginjo”,“Sparkling”and “Koshu”.No daily allowance or transportation expenses are paid by IWC to judges, and everyone selected globally comes to London at their own cost for the honor of being invited as an IWC judge.

SEJ: Could you explain how judges evaluate sake?

Minatomoto: First of all, the leader of each table, called the Panel Chairman, receives instruction from the [more senior] Co-Chairman about the year’s points of attention for judging sake. In 2017, a new idea was adopted regarding the order of tasting and I think it became more reasonable and also more accurate.

In this year, 1,245 bottles from 390 sake breweries including those abroad were received across the nine segments. In my group, we tasted 91 bottles on the first day and 68 on the second day. All bottles are wrapped up to the neck so that all tasting is done blind. Each bottle has a 5 digit number and if the bottle is identifiable in terms of color or shape, the sake is decanted to a plain bottle before being delivered to the table for judging.

The “Flight”(tasting) starts from futsu-shu, then moves to the other categories according to the discernment order [ie, lighter sake before heavier ones]. There are six to twelve different sakes per flight. After each flight has been tasted, the panel chairman starts the discussion with all judges and finally determines the group’s [unanimous] evaluation of each sake. To avoid any nonverbal influence of other judges, panel chairmen are required to have a poker face [when tasting].

In the first day, sake is decided as “out”,“commended”or “medal”. Sake having any apparent deficit in terms of quality (“out” is removed and judges taste another bottle of that sake to re-evaluate it sake [for example, in case the first was contaminated]. This year, sake having a musty odor, such as from trichloroanisole, were more prevalent than in 2016.

The Co-chairman also checks the quality of each sake in the “out”group and evaluates them again and returns any to the table that are not sufficiently deficient to be labelled “out”. If the evaluation result is changed from “out”, the judges who miscategorized it will not be invited to come to IWC again.

On the second day, judges evaluate the “medal”group sake, noting their recommendations for the medal color (gold, silver, bronze) and any particular aroma and flavor characteristics.

On day three, the Co-chairmen decide the medal colors as well as the trophy (best) sake in each of the nine categories. Then they finally select the champion sake, the best of the trophy sakes.

SEJ: Which characteristics were highly evaluated by the IWC?

Minatomoto: Sake will be highly evaluated if it has an aroma considered suitable for its category, a good balance between aroma and taste, a longer aftertaste and has pleasant elegance and subtleness.

For instance, if a Junmai sake has a fruity aroma, it is evaluated positively. However as a cautionary note for evaluation, it was stressed several times that the important thing is the balance between aroma and taste. For example, if several strong-aroma Junmai sakes are selected, this can make sake breweries incorrectly think that Junmai should carry a stronger aroma and, in a bid to achieve medals in future years, change their product to meet the perceived “new” winning criteria. Thus, following the caution of the Panel Chairman, judges carefully evaluated the stronger-aroma sake in non-Ginjo categories. Sake having extraordinary bitterness was rated poorly.

SEJ: Could you talk about the importance of information about sake in terms of propagating sake culture?

Minatomoto: According to food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, the spread of food culture is very slow in all cultures. However thanks to the information revolution, the speed of propagation of food information is increasing. The rating by IWC is one point of information and we hope it brings an opportunity for consumers to choose sake themselves. Like the development of wine consumption in Japan, new entry users will be able to choose sake according to their preference after several purchases of sake.

In Japan, there are a lot of sake competitions. Thus you may often find that every sake on the shelf has some sort of award. However there are few competitions which regard the international palate and also apply a point-addition system for evaluation, as opposed to the more common point-deduction.

With an increase of international attention on sake, we take it for granted that sake will be rated differently in Japan than by international judges due to focusing on a different palate. Sake selected by international judges may be more likely to appeal to a broader audience.

The process for deliberating on awards at the IWC is very elaborate, so the award information is useful for those new to sake. We hope that by using the IWC award information, sake novices will be able to easily choose a good sake the first time, and will continue to enjoy sake well into the future.

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