March is an in between month in Nagano. It is still winter – the mornings are below zero degrees and the mountains are still white with snow. But Spring is just around the corner – and none more so than this year when a combination of light snowfall and temperatures rising into the teens have conspired to wake up the grapes in local vineyards weeks earlier than usual, creating a bit of concern among vineyard managers.
This month, we are featuring Merlots from the largest independent wine producer in Nagano, ALPS Winery, and one of the prefecture’s newest winery, Gio Hills. ALPS is led by Manabu Yagasaki, a third-generation scion of a family that produces fruit juices and has leveraged its distribution network to bring affordable wines to shoppers at Japanese supermarkets. Gio Hills is an initiative of 30-year old Hayato Tomioka, whose family runs a nationally known ryokan in the Komoro City area of Nagano. British wine critic Jamie Goode visited Gio Hills in February 2019 and gave Mr. Tomioka’s first Merlot 91 points out of 100! See Jamie Goode’s review here.
ALPS Winery Musee du Vin Shiojiri Merlot 2017
Dark velvety ruby in color with flavor of jam and cranberries. 13% alcohol gives this wine a richer, fuller taste than normally found in Japanese Merlots, which come in between 12% and 12.5%. The palette is somewhat weak, but this can be overlooked at the easy price point. ALPS makes a number of better Merlots, e.g. the ALPS Maestro Series Merlot at 2700 yen and the Musee du Vin Shiojiri Merlot Limited at 5000 yen. However, Mr. Yagasaki has priced this Merlot right both for the average Japanese consumer and for those of us looking for an easy red to drink over a simple dinner.
Available for 1900 yen at many supermarkets and online.
Gio Hills Mimaki Merlot 2018 (Just Released!)
The wine is ruby in color with 12.5% alcohol and good acidity that nicely balance flavors of fresh cherries. The palette is smooth with a hint of tannins. Jamie Goode was right. Most surprising is the absence of the “green” flavor that plagues so many Nagano Merlots, particularly from less experienced winemakers. One reason is the location of Gio Hills Winery at 830 meters, placing it among the highest wineries in Japan. The altitude creates a wide variation between daytime and nighttime temperatures and helps ensure that the grapes ripen fully. There is an interesting back story to the name of the winery and how the young winemaker got into the business. Check it out here.
Available for 3200 yen at specialty wine shops and or by calling the winery at 0267-48-6422.