February 2020 Recommendations: A Visit to Chateau Mercian Mariko Vineyard

This past weekend we traveled to Chateau Mercian’s new visitor’s center at its 30 hectare Mariko Vineyard. Chateau Mercian began developing the Mariko Vineyard nearly 20 years ago naming it after a 6th century scion of the Kinmei Emperor. The area is widely regarded as one of the best wine-growing areas in Nagano Prefecture, because of its low annual rainfall and the protection the surrounding mountains provide from Pacific Coast typhoons.

Up until last year grapes produced at Mariko vineyard were trucked to Chateau Mercian’s winemaking facility in Yamanashi prefecture for processing. But now, thanks to a major investment in a new state-of-the art facility co-located with the new visitor’s center, grapes harvested at the Mariko vineyard are made into wine on site.

Mariko Vineyard

Chateau Mercian is owned by the Kirin Corporation, which is famous for its beer and the range of beverages that it sells from canned coffee to sports drinks. With an annual production of 500,000 bottles, Chateau Mercian is the largest producer of Japanese wine, i.e. from grapes grown in Japan. And, unlike the many smaller producers in Nagano prefecture, it consequently has the capacity to produce and market small lots of quality wine. This is especially the case with the wines that it markets under the “Mariko Vineyard” label.

Chateau Mercian Wines

During our visit to the vineyard, we sampled six wines as part of the “premium” tasting included in the tour (one Sauvignon Blanc, three Chardonnays and two Merlots). The wines ranged in price from 3500 yen (Mariko Chardonnay 2018) to 7200 yen (Kita Hokushin Left Bank Chardonnay 2017). We have always found the Mariko Chardonnay as well as its similarly priced (4200 yen) Mariko Sauvignon Blanc to be both good value and generally available online or at specialty wine shops in Tokyo.

Although not a “Mariko” wine and perhaps a bit too expensive, the Hokushin Left Bank Chardonnay Rivalis 2017, was amazing:  great fruit balanced against oak, excellent color and a smooth, satisfying finish. The wine is actually produced in the Toyono District, which is along the Chikumagawa River and now part of Nagano City. The area was severely damaged by flooding associated with the 2019 typhoon that struck Nagano, but the vines have bounced back and we can expect more great wine from this place.

The third Chardonnay, a Kita Hokushin Chardonnay Unwooded 2017, may be the best of the group in term of price performance. For 3800 yen, almost half the price of the “Left Bank” Rivalis, you get a nicely fruity nose, nice mineral complexity and a satisfying finish.

The two Merlots, which we were served as part of the tasting, were a study in contrast. The Nagano Merlot 2016 is bit less costly at 4200 yen a bottle than the Mariko Merlot 2015 at 5500 yen. Yet in terms of quality there is no contest. The Nagano Merlot had a weak color and an unappetizing vegetative flavor. On the other hand, the Mariko Merlot was ruby red with a taste of cherries, chocolate and spice and sported ample tannins, giving it a nice firmness and lingering feel on the palate. It is a good value.

The difference can be explained as the result of focused efforts to reduce methoxypyrazine levels in the grapes grown at the Mariko vineyard. This is the chemical that produces the “green bell pepper” flavor, which is a particular problem in wet climates like Japan. The Nagano Merlot grapes come from fruit produced by contract farmers in other parts of the prefecture, generally in the Takayama and Shiojiri areas – where attention to quality is a continuing problem.

Chateau Mercian Tasting Room

We strongly recommend that you take the opportunity to visit the Mariko Winery and make an advance reservation for the “premium tour”. We were very well taken care of by senior sommelier Motoyuki Yamada and sommelier Hiroko Kubota. The winery is located in Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture – which is about 90 minutes from Tokyo via the Asama Shinkansen. Click here for more information.

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