Kuno Kuheiji, his youthful face framed by a wild halo of greying hair, strides through his Banjō Jozo sake brewery in Nagoya, an airy construction of white walls, dark cedar beams and vertiginously steep stairways that dates back to the 18th century. Stopping at a stainless steel tasting table, the 15th-generation owner of the family brewery pours me some sake from a hand-labelled brown bottle. “Try this,” he says, “it was just pressed today.”
A sampling of his “Kanochi” label junmai daiginjo, it consists only of highly polished rice, water and, to jump-start the fermentation process, koji (the mould that transforms rice starches into fermentable sugars) and yeast. The brew is so young, it’s still rough around the edges, redolent with aromas of banana, strawberry and rice, but lacking the elegance and structure it will gain over six months of bottle aging.
Kuheiji is embarking on a grand Japanese-French experiment reaching from his rice farm in Hyogo Prefecture to his Domaine Kuheiji winery in the heart of Burgundy. It’s a venture built on his romantic dream of a mixed marriage between the two ancient drink traditions. Sake, which has been around for more than 2,000 years, is brewed more like beer. Quality rice, water and the talent of the master brewer are crucial to a good brew, but a sense of regionality has been lost in modern times. Traditional French winemaking, by contrast, celebrates the alchemy that occurs between grape variety, the land it is grown on and the skill of the winemaker.