It takes precise control to create a sparkling sake.

IN 1750, Ebei Nakaya was travelling from his family’s brewery in Nagano through Daigahara on the Koshu Kiado route, a hub for travellers on their way to Edo (today’s Tokyo). He quickly fell in love with the quality of the local water running through the Hakushu forest and decided to stay to expand the business.

Hakushu (meaning ‘northern forest’) is nestled in the majestic southern alps with Mt Fuji and Mt Kaikoma gracing the horizon. Flowing throughout is the Ojiro River; the name, meaning ‘white tail’, comes from an ancient myth involving a sacred horse living in the forest, and the tail formed today’s bubbling river.

The philosophy of the Shichiken brand is to brew sake in harmony with nature; for 13th-generation master brewer Ryogo Kitahara, the water of Hakushu forest is the key. Not only does the community rely on it to live, but it forms part of the ecosystem and is crucial to conserving the future of the region.

Taking this ethos one step further, Shichiken has established an agricultural co-op with local rice growers to not only ensure a higher quality of rice for their sakes, but to also build the local community and economy by increasing the reputation of the region and, in turn, the market price.  

Growing up as the second born, Kitahara’s future was not destined for the family business. That responsibility fell to his older brother, who was primed from a young age to take over the brewery. Kitahara’s dream was to become a professional soccer player and he actually attended high school with Japan’s most famous footballer, Hidetoshi Nakata. Unfortunately however, there were no offers from clubs at the end of his schooling so he gave up on his dream, deciding instead to attend the Tokyo University of Agriculture. With no aspirations to join the family business, this wasn’t his chosen career path but after growing up at a brewery, fermentation was something that felt familiar to him. At the age of 20, to his surprise, his father requested he join the business to assist with sales, rice growing and food pairing for the restaurant.

French-Canadian François Chartier has made a name for himself

And thus Kitahara started brewing for Shichiken with a goal to challenge himself to produce something unique. This ethos led to a dissection of the custom of kampai or toasting, which was traditionally performed in Japan with junmai daiginjo sake, and more recently beer.

However, compared with a Western aperitif like Champagne, sake can be a little sweet before a meal, and beer just isn’t that special to toast. Something was needed to liven up sake – it needed a sparkle. With this goal in mind, Kitahara knew that using carbonation required no skill and would simply lead to a price war, and a losing battle when competing with far larger breweries.

Luckily, Yamanashi is also home to many of Japan’s most famous and successful wineries. Kitahara studied at the Yamanashi wine centre to intimately understand the production of sparkling wine and in turn discovered his own way of producing a sparkling sake by way of a second fermentation in bottle.

French-Canadian François Chartier has made a name for himself

The gravity of this achievement should not be brushed over. In Champagne production, a base wine is made then blended, and perhaps aged and bottled ready for a liqueur de tirage containing additional sugar and yeast to be added in order for secondary fermentation to create the bubbles.

Due to the laws surrounding production, sake may only contain rice, water, and koji, and no additional sugar can be added, meaning you need precise control over the amount of sugar and the liveliness of the remaining yeast during the bottling process.

After five years of trial and error – and many an exploded bottle – in 2015, Shichiken became the first brewery to release a in-bottle, secondary fermented sparkling sake with its Yama no Kasumi. The range now includes Sora no Irodori, Hoshi no Kagayaki, and the flagship Mori no Kanade (‘Symphony of the Forest’) aged in Suntory Hakushu whisky barrels to add depth and luxury.

When asked about his patience for such a project, Kitahara says: “Sake brewing is all about how you interact with nature and the natural organisms. It is how you condition your mind … and where you really need patience.”

This success did not go unnoticed and in 2017 Kitahara was awarded the Best Young Brewer award at the Sake Competition, which was established by retailer Hasegawa Saketen and the same ex-footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, who is now one of sake’s greatest ambassadors.

The award led to an introduction to French culinary icon Alain Ducasse, and the creation of a new sparkling sake designed to pair with Western food, inspired by Ducasse’s connection to the Mediterranean and its amazing produce. The results are spectacular and unique, and, in Kitahara’s words, “in a completely different genre to the rest of our sparkling sake line-up”.

Kitahara sees sake becoming something enjoyed in everyday life around the world, and with time, he sees sparkling sake equalling the prestige and luxury of Champagne. When asked about his legacy in a family of such history, Kitahara says: “My generation is sowing the seeds for the next generation to reap. Just as Dom Pérignon sowed the seeds for Champagne.”

With over 270 years in the making, nothing is rushed, but I urge you: “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars”.

French-Canadian François Chartier has made a name for himself

Sake to Try

Yama no Kasumi, A$65
Slightly cloudy (nigori). Notes of green melon, banana, rice pudding, starfruit and honey with a soft, velvety, delicate effervescence. Clean, refreshing umami filled finish with a touch of salinity. This could work on its own as an aperitif, or with pork buns/bao, sea urchin pasta or perhaps even strawberry cheesecake.

Sora no Irodori, A$95
Clear with very persistent bead. Pear and green melon dominate the nose with white flowers, jasmine tea, fresh fig leaf, cinnamon, raw almond and lactic notes in support. Refreshing with a rounded mouthfeel, short finish and a nice grip to the palate. Try with sweet and sour pork, prawn kushiage, chicken nanban or blue cheese.

Sélection Alain Ducasse, A$130
Clear with a fine, persistent bead. Aromas of white flowers, wild strawberry, sweet yoghurt, pear and clove combine beautifully on the nose. Incredibly smooth on the palate with a refreshing acidity, even more so than the others in the range. A lingering sweetness and bitterness is lifted by nashi pear. Very modern in style with a clean, dry, mineral finish. This is unlike any other sparkling sake I have tasted and would appeal to non-sake drinkers and Champagne lovers alike. Truly excellent. Pair with grilled white fish with light citrus.

Furinbizan Junmai, A$35  (non-sparkling)
A whiff of pineapple, cooked rice, mango, pink fairy floss and honey flow from the glass. A rounded palate with strong acid/structure, however still light and balanced with a lingering rice finish. Enjoy with kasusuke (cured salmon), roast chicken or chargrilled sardines.

Kinunoaji Junmai Daiginjo, A$98  (non-sparkling)
Banana, watermelon, yoghurt and pistachio nougat perfume the glass. Mouthfilling and soft with a nutty, lactic coating of the tongue. Seductive texture with a long finish. Would pair well with grilled eel, or a creamy pasta.

Kaikoma Junmai Daiginjo, A$95  (non-sparkling)
A delicate, well-integrated nose of green melon, jackfruit, white flowers, mace, hazelnut and white chocolate coax you into the glass. A super smooth texture rolls off your tongue, followed by a subtle sweet finish. Gorgeous! Try with octopus shabu shabu with yuzu ponzu, dim sum, chawanmushi.

Birodonoaji Junmai Ginjo  (non-sparkling, not available in Australia)
Fruit-forward style with green melon and pear, white and pink flowers, lychee and Turkish delight. Soft palate, refreshing soft acid, lingering melon and lychee finish. Serve with yakitori with salt.

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