From cellar master to burgeoning saké purist, Richard Geoffroy, former chef de cave at Dom Pérignon, is on a mission to create the purest Japanese rice wine in the market with traditional champagne-making methods.
Richard Geoffroy loves saké. His view on saké production is more poetic than technical, though he’s also capable of the latter. When I asked him about the architectural inspiration behind the kura (a preferred Japanese term to refer to brewery), he instead delivered a soliloquy about the relationship between men and the lay of the land, and how men do not shape the landscape, but that it happens in reverse, where our views take shape instead. “I'm a great believer in landscapes,” he said. “Being drawn to a destination isn’t a temporal feeling, for there must be something complex to uncover.”
The storytelling comes from the mind of the man whose 28-year tenure at Dom Pérignon was nothing short of visionary. Under his charge as former Chef de Cave, the champagne brand garnered prestige and a global presence he helped revolutionize. As if in pursuit of a second life, he takes on a new dream project: To create a grand Japanese saké.
Named IWA 5, the christening of his saké brand bears a philosophical significance. In numerology, the number 5 is the universal number of balance and harmony, whereas similarly in Pythagoreanism, the number symbolizes marriage. Part of IWA’s name takes after the site it sits on. That is Shiraiwa, located in the idyllic alpine town of Tateyama in Japan’s Toyama Prefecture.
“I found that it was very important for the kura to be sitting where it is within the landscape to create that solid visual identity,” said Geoffroy. “The quality of the water is just as important as the quality of the rice. I realized that out of the 1,200 kura in activity, there must only be a few handfuls of kura in the open fields.” Designed by acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma, who’s more known for his commercial and hospitality architecture, the IWA saké brewery is a black gabled-roof building that is a stark addition to the surrounding greenery. The kura is a pioneer project for him.
“Kengo never worked on color,” said Geoffroy. “And for Japanese architects, designing a kura is quite significant.”
Geoffroy created IWA 5 out of love for the Japanese. He is passionate about the country, its culture, and more so their saké. “When we look at the history of saké, it has been in Asia for centuries,” he explained. “Almost every single country has their own version of rice wine. One can even go as far as India to find some; I was in Vietnam drinking local saké.”
He continues, “So why is it regarded as more Japanese? It could well be about their perseverance. Between you and me, there is nothing more complicated than making saké in the world of fermented beverages. There's something that remains rather empirical, and so much based upon the expanse of centuries that Japan maybe had more than anybody — that sense of repeating the same gesture again and again to the point of perfection.”
Yet his approach in creating IWA comprises a meeting between his old and new worlds. He adopts the method of assemblage, a key component in wine making where wines are mixed between the stages of fermentation — a process that Geoffroy knows well. “Introducing the process of assemblage in saké can be considered a major step forward in developing new territories of saké through new expressions and pushing the boundaries.”
“Balance is universal,” said Geoffroy. “And you can see that in any production in any craft, even in the great cuisines of the world. It always has the sweet, the sour, the satisfied, the spicy, the umami… it revolves around the same principles. And hopefully, that will allow us to produce liquids of harmony, balance, and complexity.”
While he welcomes the challenge of creating an exemplary elixir through unconventional methods, he insists that he is not here to reinvent the wheel. The initial pushback he received was expected. He is, after all, a Frenchman making Japanese saké. “Saké has been around for well over a millennium and is among the oldest beverages on the planet,” he said. “Putting one’s toe into such a conservative territory of tradition and heritage can stir some reactions.”
“The first actual proof of our commitment was building the new kura. It somehow proved to the locals that we, as new players, have the confidence and faith in the future of the industry of saké that will be here for good.”
For Asian palates, the flavor profile of rice wine is familiar territory, which is why Geoffroy’s greatest challenge is to expand the interest of saké in the West. “We need to make it clear that it is not a distilled spirit, but a fermented one,” he said. “You wouldn't believe how many people have no clue about this.
“Besides strengthening our branding, we also have to do some education. It's sort of a balancing act and it's a slow process as before communicating this to the consumers, we must convince the distributors themselves. Currently, our distributors in Europe and the US are not distributing any saké. These things in the West will not happen overnight but we're investing a lot of resources and our time into it.”
IWA recently launched Assemblage 3, a version that Geoffroy describes as the refined result from Assemblages 1 and 2. “Assemblage 1 was my first attempt to start from somewhere, so it was a bit out of the blue,” he said. “That’s perhaps when I felt the most pressure as people were expecting me to create a champagne-like saké. Instead, what emerged were rather dark flavors and aromatics that are uncommon and the opposite of what is found in saké. Assemblage 2 is, as I would describe it, a fleshier saké. It is more vibrant with a higher sense of flora. I’ve been told that it reminds them of a white burgundy.”
If you’re wondering about 3, Geoffroy promises that one can expect a greater vibrance and finish, a richer aftertaste, and more intensity. “I introduced it to Chef Kanda of 3 Michelin-star restaurant Kanda, and he couldn't believe its intensity and presence of aromatics,” he said. “The Japanese are quite surprised by this as the saké profile is unusually striking, but they welcome it.”
For Geoffroy, this is the start of another hopefully long tenure. And the deeper he gets into this project, he’s aware that he’s now in a vastly different stage than when he began. “The progress will get more asymptotic, compared to the early years where I can go leaps and bounds in conceptualizing,” he said. “I just finalized Assemblage 4 for next year's release. I've been finding it more difficult because now I'm refining minute details and fixing marginal ones that all I see are 50 shades of white.”
“With any new project, I believe one is absolutely convinced that you're holding an element of truth to convey to the world. Such projects are always about proving something. Obviously, there is the idea of being successful and hopefully in turn, in all humility, to contribute to something here in Japan. I'm a gaijin, a foreigner. I will never be Japanese, but I hope I can somehow be adopted.”