56 / / TRAVEL
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DISCOVERING THE MOST FAMOUS DRINK OF THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN, ON DISPLAY AT VINITALY FOR THE FIRST TIME WITH ITS OWN SECTION
V I N I TA LY 50+1
After the odd, sneaky appearance in the past, this year sake will be playing a major role at the Verona Trade Fair – among international wines, however, not with spirits. In fact, there is still a lot of confusion about the liquor – as the iconic and laconic ideogram that represents it translates. A quick recap is needed. Sake is not a rice wine, as it is often labelled. Grapes contain sugars which, once fermented, turn into alcohol. The Japanese drink, on the other hand, needs yeast to convert the starches, the same way malt is used for beer (more or less) but in a more articulated process. What matters is that there are four active actors in this fermented brew: water, rice (the essential ingredients) and the combination of koji and toji. The first is a natural mould (the same found in miso), a microscopic agent of the miracle that makes these special grains suitable for processing. Toji, on the other hand, is the master that oversees and directs it. There are about 1,500 sake producers in Japan, and regionality is looser and less stable than you might expect. The world of sake, more properly known as shu, is in fact a dusting of miniature constellations, each shining with its own light. There are no terroir of excellence such as Chianti or Bordeaux, therefore, not true harvesting seasons: the traditional activity, which mainly took place in winter, has been extented to the rest of the year, and each brewery produces a stock every 40 days. The clue for finding a young wine are the spheres made by intertwining maple leaves: they are called sugitama and, when hanging up like a sign, mean that you are in the right place. You will then come out, maybe a little tipsy, with a few bottles to take home. However, if you do still need a where and when in order to follow a fixed itinerary for discovering the national product, traced out with a red line – or, more likely, white or amber – then start with these names. Fushimi, in the Kyoto area, is home to Gekkeikan, the leading producer, still active after nearly four centuries. At Nada, not far from Kobe–yes, the same place known for its cattle that are pampered and massaged before ending up on the stove–there is a higher degrere of varieties and quantities, offering a wide range of interesting visits, the same goes for the remote prefecture of Iwate. Another noteworthy location –according to John Gaunter, a recognised and revered guru– is Niigata, where a mountain brew is produced, using exceptionally pure water, resulting in a real classic. Kampai!