In just four years, bottle-fermented sparkling sake (Awasake) has emerged as an exciting new category in Japanese sake. The Awasake producer association has a shared quality charter, technical patent, and promotional campaign. Awasake must be made to sparkle by a second fermentation, and not (as in the more mass-market style of sparkling sake) by carbonation. The development of the technique to make bottle-fermented sparkling sake was led by Mr. Noriyoshi Nagai, of Nagai Sake in Gunma. Mr. Nagai first started experimenting with bottle-fermented sparkling sake in 2003. “I failed 700 times”, he smiles, “before I succeeded in 2008.” He went on to share his method (bear in mind that a conventional ‘tirage’ is not permissable under Sake rules) with other sake producers, who went on to make their own increasingly impressive bottle fermented sparkling sake. In 2016, nine sake breweries came together to create the Awasake Association. Today there are fifteen members, from all over Japan.
The styles and quality of Awasake are (as you would expect in such a young category) highly diverse, from delicate Brut Nature with ethereal ginjo character, to full-bodied, rich demi-sec examples. Some are delicate and floral – and almost on the same planet as the experience of drinking a sparkling wine. Others are from a different universe: savoury, heavily golden, and almost hefty, with vigorous toasted cereal character.
This is a truly intriguing new category. More aromatic than their vinous equivalents, with lower acidity but higher umami and (in some cases) extract, Awasake offers a fascinating new option for fine bubbles. Noriyoshi was inspired by his love of Champagne to develop Awasake. Cultured, friendly, well-travelled and curious, he has both visited and hosted acclaimed European winemakers.
The presentation of Awasake, in classic sparkling wine bottles, recalls that of Champagne. But the labels, paper and graphic design are beautiful and distinctively Japanese. And the style and flavour profile is a different creature. While carbonated sparkling sake – typically with very low alcohol, high sugar and floral easiness – is readily found in Japanese restaurants in the UK, Awasake is a different proposition. These bottle fermented sake are still rare here, although their reputation in Japan (one of the world’s biggest consumers of Champagne) is high, and admired as a creative food-pairing option. Many of the rich, dark styles made me wish for a deeply creamy, deeply smelly cheese to accompany. Noriyoshi smiles, and tells me that this is one of their favourite pairings.
Japanese culture delights and entrances through this paradox: diligent dedication to both its own heritage, and creative interpretations of others.
Below are my tasting notes from a fascinating tasting of Awasake from across Japan. I really liked them, once I’d got my head around the very different structure and texture to any bottle-fermented sparkling wine in my frame of reference. And I was greatly impressed and moved by the incredible achievement of these producers who have come together to create this new, premium, technically demanding drink with great unity and focus. Noriyoshi-san’s “700 failures” were just 700 steps to a new creation.
1 Mutsu Hassen Dry Sparkling, Hachinohe Sake Brewery, Aomori, 12%
Pale greenish gold. Lightly perfumed, marine aromatics with fine, delicate mousse and a fresh, lightly savoury palate enlivened by a touch of pleasant bitterness.
2 Nambu-Bijin Awasake Sparkling, Nambu Bijin, Iwate, 14%
Very pale, with delicate aromas of lychee and pear. Soft mousse and a creamy, floral palate with delicate savoury umami and a refreshing style.
3 Dewatsuru Awa Sake for Tomorrow, Akita-Seishu Brewery, Akita, 13%
A more intense aromatic style, with notes of apricot. A more generous, bold style in both aromatics and texture.
4 Dewazakura Awa Sake, Dewazakura Sake Brewery, Yamagata, 13%
Very fruity, with aromas of fresh grape. Full, creamy mousse and palate with light autolytic character and broad finish
5 Ninki-Ichi Awa Sake Sparkling Junmai Dai-Ginjo Ninki Shuzo, Fukushima, 13%
Aromatic, with hints of white peach and lightly tropical fruit. Nice purity and elegant mousse. Rich and generous on the pure-tasting finish.
6 Toyokuni, Toyokuni Sake Brewery, Fukushima, 12%
The sake character is more pronounced here, with aromas of banana skin and ripe pear. Pleasing hint of bitterness on the pure palate. Well balanced and clean in style.
7 Kaika Awasake, Dai-Ichi Shuzo Sake Brewery, Tochigi, 13%
Broad and fruity, with notes of yellow peach and pineapple, in a round, accessible style
8 Mizubasho Pure, Nagai Sake, Gunma, 13%
Refined aromatics of lychee and apple. Gentle acidity, but lovely sense of fresh balance overall. Fine, soft, gentle mousse. Delicate savoury/umami character on mid palate and dry, elegant finish.
10 Mizubasho Yuki-Hotaka Awa Sake, Nagai Sake, Gunma, 13%
Refined aromatics of white blossom. An elegant, off-dry, but very balanced style. Very charming and easy to like.
11 Mizubasho Pure 2009, Nagai Sake, Gunma, 13%
Very pretty pale goldish-green. Complex aromas of red apple, blossom and delicate steamed rice. Excellent fine mousse, with delicate perfume on mid-palate and a long, refined finish where the umami notes really come through.
12 Kikuizumi Hito-Suji, Takizawa Shuzo, Saitama, 12%
Lots of Umami on the nose. This tastes more like “sake with bubbles” than some of the others. Bold, characterful and interesting.
13 Hitosuji Rosé, Takizawa Shuzo, Saitama, 11%
Very pretty pale salmon pink. The colour comes from the red yeast used during fermentation. Fruity and floral, with hints of cherry blossom. Quite sweet on the palate, but refreshed by fine mousse and nice bitterness
14 Shichiken Hoshi-no-Kagayaki, Yamanashi-Meijo, Yamanashi, 11%
Delicate banana skin on the nose. An elegant sparkling sake, with gentle creamy mousse.
15 Shichiken Sora-no-Irodori, Yamanashi-Meijo, Yamanashi, 12%
Very pale watery white. Pure and floral, with hint of steamed rice. Delicately foaming mousse.
16 Shichiken Mori-no-Kanade, Yamanashi-Meijo, Yamanashi, 12%
More evolved aromatics, and a much more savoury/umami style, with intense autolytic character and notes of toasted rice. A bolder, more intense sparkling sake overall.
17 Mashumi Sparkling, Miyasaka Jozo Sake Brewery, Nagano, 12%
Elegant aromatics of fresh white peach and pear. Fine mousse and fresh but smooth finish.
18 Awa Hakkaisan, Hakkai Jozo Sake Brewery Niigata, 13%
Complex and intriguing aromas of hazelnut skin, japanese pickles and toasted rice. Pure and clean, with hints of yellow peach, on the palate. Soft mousse, but with a pleasing astringency that gives a refreshing style, as does the moderate alcohol
19 Awa Yuki-Shiro Hakkaisan, Hakkai Jozo Sake Brewery, Niigata, 12%
Extremely pale and delicate in colour. Elegant, airy, refined aromas of white pear and red apple. Nice palate, with delicate banana and citrus and a fine mousse with a finish that is balanced, with notes of fresh steamed rice.
20 Chiyomusubi Sorah, Chiyo-Musubi Shuzo, Tottori, 12%
Banana skin, more assertive aromatic style. Gently frothy, refreshing bitterness on finish.
21 Yatsushika awa sake Hakkou, Yatsushika Shuzo, Ohita, 12%
Open and fragrant with notes of yellow pear. Intriguing, with depth and layer of texture beneath the bubbles.
22 Tenzan Sparkling, Tenzan Shuzo, Saga, 13%
Smoky salty aromas with hints of lychee. Marine and vigorous. Full, bold finish.
23 Kitaya Sparkling Crystal, Kitaya Sake Brewery, Fukuoa, 12%
Very fruity and floral. Sweet, soft, frothy and charming with hint of musk melon.
Sarah Abbott MW.
I tasted Awasake in Gunma prefecture, on a visit courtesy of JFOODO, in March 2020.
For further information, see the Awasake Association website.