Report from London – IWC Sake Judging
written by Mariko Tajiri
The International Wine Challenge is the biggest wine competition in the world. The sake category is in its 11th year with over 1100 sakes and I was lucky enough to participate this year as a judge for the first time. There were 64 judges this year from all over the world and I tasted over 160 sakes in 2 days, in a process that awards sake in different categories Gold, Silver and Bronze medals.
People (including my mother!) think that my job involves a lot of drinking and enjoying sake. Although I really DO have fun, it’s a ton of work. It takes hours and hours of not just tasting but dynamic discussions with other judges to come to decisions. So what do we look for when we’re tasting sake in a competition?
Here are some key factors:
Faults – this isn’t just for wine! Corked (TCA affected) sake, hine, microbial issues, fermentation issues are just some of the faults that can be found in sake. It’s our jobs to find and isolate the bottles with these problems. There are some things like VA for example, which are issues in the wine world that are talked about a lot less with sake. We have to ask ourselves if the amount of VA in the sake interferes with the overall balance of the sake and keep that in check.
Typicity – each sake category (i.e. Honjozo, Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo) has a typical style that is known for. When a consumer picks up a bottle labeled Junmai Ginjo, it should represent what’s considered typical: Ginjo notes of fruit, floral and with a good amount of finesse and elegance. It shouldn’t be earthy and full of umami because it won’t be what is expected!
Overall Balance – at the end of the day, everything in life is about balance. The aromatics, flavours, weight, texture, acidity and finish should all be in line. However, the interesting thing is that different people from different backgrounds and geographical regions have slightly different ideas of what is in balance. Not everyone sees acidity positively (or the amount of it), which makes for great conversation! If someone comes from a wine background versus a strictly sake background, it often really shows a gap in what each judge is looking for.
Trends – like all things, there are trends in sake. What’s popular right now isn’t the same as what was popular 25 years ago and knowing this is also part of the criteria. There are fancy, showy yeasts that used to be all the rage, giving all sorts of wild esters. Things have calmed down a little now but we still found a lot of Junmai Daiginjo sakes that were looking to impress. Some were great, some not so much…some we wanted to drink a lot of and others only a glass. Or maybe a mouthful was enough! At the end of the day, the sakes we put forward as medal contenders had to be ones that we would recommend to our friends.
Judging at 2017 IWC was truly a humbling, amazing and learning experience and I even got a photo with Oz Clarke! Make sure you stay tuned to see the medal winners from the competition.