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Richard Geoffroy on swapping Dom Pérignon for a sake brewery

For three decades, Richard Geoffroy was the ebullient, eccentric force behind the world’s most famous Champagne. So, what makes him think he can turn his hand to sake?

Words by Jim Clarke

richard geoffroy
The Collection
Portraits by Charles Geoffroy

In June of 2019, Richard Geoffroy’s life – his second life, as he calls it – ended in a high-profile ceremony at Hautvilliers Abbey. It was here that the monk Dom Pérignon lived, worked and was buried, and for 28 years, Geoffroy had been chef de cave of the Champagne that bears the monk’s name. Now he was stepping down.

Then, in November of the same year, a Shinto ceremony in the foothills southeast of Japan’s Toyama Bay marked the beginning of Geoffroy’s third life. With that ceremony, he broke ground on a sake brewery.

Richard Geoffroy: 'I’ve done everything late in life'

From the outside, it was a move even more unlikely than Geoffroy’s first life, as a doctor. In retrospect, his medical career turned out to be nothing more than youthful rebellion. Geoffroy had grown up in Champagne, and while his father Henri, a vigneron and president of the Champagne Growers’ Union, was happy to see his son go into a more respected profession, it didn’t last. ‘I could see that being a doctor was not necessarily for me,’ Geoffroy says. So he retrained, and as he entered his third decade, he finally found his vocation. ‘I’ve done everything late in life,’ he says. ‘I married late, had kids late. I’m sad to say that I will probably retire late – or perhaps never – but I suspect that retirement is a sort of dead end.’

Champagne is very complex, but sake beats it

Geoffroy doesn’t like dead ends. He made up for lost time as a young winemaker by working multiple harvests each year, bouncing between hemispheres to gain experience in California, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Portugal. He estimates he did four vintages a year for six years or so before taking over at Dom Pérignon in 1990. It was only then that his work began taking him to Japan.

He made around 100 visits to the country, and as it grabbed his interest, sake became part of that experience. Thanks to his role with Dom Pérignon, he found himself in the hands of the best guides. Shinya Tasaki, a former Best Sommelier in the World, plied him with flights of different styles, and he was struck by how much sake reminded him of Champagne. ‘There are many shared elements,’ Geoffroy says. ‘The sheer ease and drinkability. There are not many beverages on earth you can drink so easily. To me, sake, Champagne and Fino Sherry all have similarities. Dishes that go with one go with the others. And with their salinity, the last sip always calls for the next one.’

sake making
The number of sake breweries in Japan has decreased by 1,000 over the past 35 years

But appreciation does not a business opportunity make. The sake industry is struggling. While exports were growing until the pandemic hit, they have never exceeded 5% of production, and the core domestic market continues to shrink with Japan’s population decline. Today, there are fewer than 1,500 breweries, compared to 2,500 in 1984. Nonetheless, Geoffroy saw an opportunity and a challenge in sake that he didn’t see in, say, Sherry. ‘There’s so much space, as long as you go for it and get things right. What first attracted me is the level of complexity in the making of sake. It’s such an options game. I thought Champagne was it, but there are way more options in sake than in Champagne. Champagne is very complex, but sake beats it. There’s so much microbiology involved, and you need a lot of experience to master it. So intellectually, it was very stimulating.’

Experience, of course, was what he didn’t have, and one doesn’t decide, aged 65, to become a master sake brewer. So Geoffroy went in search of partners. He visited more than a dozen breweries, big and small, without success. Then one night over drinks, a friend, the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, recommended Ryuichiro Masuda. The owner of Masuizumi, a highly regarded brewery in Toyama, Masuda was already making elevated, super-premium sakes and was open to new ideas. A wine lover and collector, he had successfully experimented with barrel aging and other tools from the wine world. ‘We visited Masuda for the weekend,’ recalls Geoffroy, ‘and surprisingly, he was pretty easy to convince. I realised he had a really clear, analytical view of his own industry, which can come across as a little complacent.’

japanese tree
sake rice
Geoffroy says the landscape surrounding the brewery in Shiraiwa (left) serves as an inspiration for the sake's identity

Geoffroy is careful not to criticise his now fellow sake producers, but he mentions how he finds some sakes overly sweet or bitter, or generally out of balance. The smart ones, he says, aim at a ‘broader span of drinking moment’. (For the record, he also thinks too many chefs de caves in Champagne, particularly smaller producers, have forgotten about drinkability.) He notes, too, how high-end sakes tend to be more about the nose than the palate, and the finish can be ‘abrupt’ – a clean finish is seen as a virtue in sake circles, but Geoffroy is keen to enhance what he sees as a disjointed element by incorporating a more satisfying note. ‘I want an equilibrium, a balance between nose and palate. Conventional sake is more about the nose; I want more fragrant, vibrant, luminous, radiant aromatics. The finish is crucial. I spend so much time [working] on the quality of the finish,’ he says, ‘integrating all the components of taste and sapidity and umami together.’

Masuda and Geoffroy began experimenting, developing the sake and looking for a brewery site. Meanwhile, Kuma drew up plans for the brewery, with Australian designer Marc Newson contributing on other design elements, including the bottle. The new company and the brewery took the name of the eventual site, Shiraiwa, which means ‘White Rock’; the brand itself is Iwa, and the sake is called Iwa 5. The first three bottlings were completed at Masuda’s brewery before the Shiraiwa brewery was finished in March of 2021. (Sake is traditionally brewed in the winter months, and for now, Geoffroy is keeping with that schedule, meaning the first brew at the Shiraiwa location won’t commence until this winter.)

sake making
Traditionally, the quality of sake has revolved around the percentage of rice polishing; Geoffroy is putting the focus on ageing and blending

The pandemic didn’t slow down construction unduly, but it did change Geoffroy’s marketing plans. Exports remain key; he aims to export 80% of the production, a number much higher than other industry leaders have come close to. Originally the intention was to start off in Europe and the US, but Covid-related issues confined Iwa 5 to Asia initially. So, Iwa 5 first saw the light of day in Japan in May of 2020, then spread out to Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. In September 2021, attention turned to Europe, starting with the United Kingdom, Italy and France. While the complicated distribution laws in the United States have slowed down plans there, the aim is to have Iwa 5 available for private clients by the end of the year, with distribution to restaurants opening up in 2022. For now, private clients and high-end restaurants are the target market, with bottles priced at approximately £130 retail. Initial production is around 1,000 cases, which Geoffroy hopes to increase, though he points out that yields are small and the cost of the raw materials ‘insane’.

But Geoffroy’s role at Shiraiwa is not simply that of the visionary or brand ambassador. While not a brewer himself, Geoffroy brings a skill set rarely practised in the world of sake, which is normally made in single batches. Much of the brewer’s art traditionally lies in ensuring consistency in each brew, with the marketing focus on the percentage of rice polishing (too much so for Geoffroy, who says rice can be ‘overpolished’). Iwa 5, however, is a blend. At its core, it combines sakes brewed with five different rice strains, providing ‘five different typologies’, though the components are much more diverse than that summation conveys.

sake making
Richard Geoffroy says his production – whatever volume, whatever size – 'will keep being experimental'

Blending, of course, lies at the heart of Champagne production, so while Geoffroy is no brewer, he’s well prepared. ‘Brewing is a lifetime project, but blending could apply to sake, Port, Champagne – anything. Blending, to me, is very straightforward. I’ve been doing this long enough; I’m very clear about the objective.’ And that objective is to start from a set of components that provide different characters and styles, ‘as long as each individual base element is an optimum expression of that style. Then the blend can be stretched by working opposite or complementary components together.’ When blends fail to add up, Geoffroy says, it’s often because the elements were not dissimilar enough. ‘The most difficult part of blending is to know exactly what you can expect from each individual element and then to realise that some elements are out before you even start. The frustrating thing is that sometimes these elements can be bloody good, and still they’re out. If they cannot fit into the scheme, they don’t belong.’

I suspect many guardians of the temple are not so comfortable with what I’m making

For Iwa 5, the components echo what Geoffroy achieved with Dom Pérignon – deliberately so. ‘It’s the overall sense of completeness, the complexity, to be substantial enough and yet include nothing overly weighty. That and a floating element of relatively weightless opulence; that has been my life, and that’s something I will stick to forever.

Just as Dom Pérignon is a vintage product, Iwa 5 has and will continue to change and evolve – not because of different growing seasons, but because Geoffroy is continuing to explore the various tools that sake brewing offers. ‘I insist on the fact that this production – whatever volume, whatever size – will keep being experimental. I don’t want a steady state and to say, “Here we go, we’ve got the formula, and I don’t even need to come to Japan anymore, I just prescribe the thing by email.” No, no, no. This project will keep experimenting forever.’ That said, Geoffroy was forced to perfect the blend for the second bottling of Iwa 5 in his kitchen at home in France, because he couldn’t get to Japan during Covid.

iwa sake
Geoffroy has opted to make ageing a part of his sake-making process, an unusual step in sake production

While the pandemic changed the trajectory of the launch, it also gave Geoffroy a chance to realise a second, important point of difference, beyond blending. Sake is typically drunk fresh; ageing sake as a regular practice disappeared in the 19th century, when tax laws changed. But having had the chance to see how well Iwa 5 ages in bottle, Geoffroy decided to make bottle maturation part of the plan and to highlight the difference ageing makes. So, the second iteration, by way of example, had a different yeast selection in pursuit of a more substantial weight and brighter aromatics. The third assemblage was bottled in May 2021 and will only be released a year later. With it, Geoffroy also plans to present a triumvirate of the three blends completed to date, from 2019, 2020 and 2021. It’s a concept familiar from the world of wine, though these are not verticals of different vintages in the sense of highlighting the growing conditions of the year. Rather, they will show the evolution of the blend and the progressive effect of ageing in bottle – the two points that Geoffroy believes set Iwa 5 apart. ‘Blending and bottle maturation are not really traditional to sake-making, and yet in the end, the goal is to achieve something within the sake orthodoxy. I’m trying to push the parameters through what I would call rather unconventional means, yet to achieve a grand sake.’

While the sake world is generally a conservative one, the struggles facing the industry have made innovations like Geoffroy’s more welcome. ‘People who do something different aren’t always liked, and I suspect many guardians of the temple are not so comfortable with what I’m making, but they tend to be discreet,’ says Geoffroy. ‘However, some people have said, “At last, a gaijin is coming in and stirring the pot.” And several discerning palates have given me the best compliment, by saying that while Iwa 5 is very true to sake and cannot be mistaken for anything else, there is definitely a new sensation there, related to balance and complexity. So, you could say that the whole thing has been reconfigured but without breaking away or going too far.’

iwa sake bottle
Initial production of Iwa 5 is around 1,000 cases, aimed largely at the restaurant trade

What’s indisputable is that, as Geoffroy says, ‘It’s definitely a new life for me. But it’s funny – it’s as if a little voice was telling me what to do. I never had any hesitation. It’s not very rational, but I’m tired of rational; rational is very limiting. Great things are not rational; there’s something beyond that. So I’m following my instinct, and people are following me.’ Part of this, as he’s well aware, is about building the brand – of which he is very much part. ‘It’s not very Japanese to be self-promoting,’ he says. You get the sense it comes more easily to Geoffroy. ‘When you have no conflict in what you make, it allows you to go further. I could have stayed at Dom Pérignon, but I felt I had to move on. At Dom Pérignon I was not building the brand; it was in existence long before me and will continue long after me. Whereas now I have the sense of starting off, of building something new.’

How does Richard Geoffroy’s IWA 5 taste? Sake expert Anthony Rose gives his verdict…

It makes sense for Richard Geoffroy to choose to make a junmai daiginjō, and he has done so by respecting the established order of rice polishing, yet also drawing on his blending expertise. Junmai, pure rice sake with no alcohol added, is perceived by many as a purer style than alcohol-added sake, even if alcohol at premium level is limited by law and added to enhance fragrance and, counterintuitively, lightness. By law, daiginjō requires at least 50% of the rice grain to be milled. To remove 65%, as is the case with Iwa 5, is a greater sacrifice in the interests of quality. Brewers go lower than 35%, Dassai 23 being the obvious example, but Geoffroy has rejected the line that lower is better.

Where he does make a marketing statement is in his aim of creating an internationally recognized brand, not something that concerns most sake producers. The biggest difference in style, meanwhile, is the application of his blending expertise. Blending rice varieties – not the norm – is at the heart of Geoffroy’s desire for balance and depth. The complexity of the assemblage is in the blending of four different rice varieties from three distinct regions, using five sake yeast strains.

The result is a sake that transcends the aromatic power expected of daiginjō without losing perfume but bringing added texture and delicacy and building on flavour with light, savoury umami notes. Assemblage one, bottled in July 2019 and released in April 2020, contains more in the savoury umami spectrum of flavour, largely from its extra ageing. The second assemblage, bottled in June 2020 and released in May 2021, more than makes up for it in freshness and finesse.

Anthony Rose is the author of ‘Sake and the Wines of Japan’

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