December 2020 Recommendations

It is snowing in the mountains of Nagano as we write this – and the ski season promises to be the best in a decade. There is already nearly half a meter of snow on the ground and another half meter is expected overnight. After a long day on the slopes, there is nothing better than sitting by a wood stove and trying out some new wines. This month, we are reporting on two small producers, who are imaginatively combining the Chardonnay grape with other varietals that help make good wines much better. 

Inishie no Sato Charner 2019 

This is another of the many small wineries in Nagano today with a colorful story. In this case, the narrative begins in 2006 when chef Masahiro Inagaki opened a restaurant called Brasserie du Vin, close by Shiojiri City’s main train station.

Shiojiri City located in the southwest corner of Nagano Prefecture has long been a center for viniculture and the restaurant attracted fans in and out of the city by bringing together local wines with good French cuisine. In 2014, Mr. Inagaki decided to make his own wines, purchasing land in the area and producing enough to meet the needs of the restaurant and selling the remainder through a network of local wine merchants. We recently came across a few bottles of his wine for sale at our favorite wine shop, Yorzuya and were quite impressed.  

Like many winemakers in the prefecture, Mr. Inagaki has struggled with the Chardonnay grape, which depends on reliable sunshine, dry weather and a significant gap between daytime and night temperatures to create the right balance of acidity and sweetness.  Unfortunately, September in Nagano with its typhoons and humidity presents a challenge to the winemaker. Some wineries have sought to manage this problem by ageing their Chardonnay in oak barrels while others have shifted to producing Sauvignon Blanc wines that seem better fitted to the local climate.  

More recently, a small number winemakers have experimented with blending their Chardonnay with other white varietals to produce a better balance between the acidity and sweetness of the wine. Mr. Inagaki appears to have gone down this path. His wine is a blend of Chardonnay (79 percent), Kerner (11 percent) and Merlot Blanc (10 percent). Production is small at 285 bottles, but this approach has promise: the wine is fresh, fruity, and free of the somewhat “woody” taste that can overwhelm fruit flavors in the case of oaked Chardonnays typically produced in the prefecture.  Alcohol is 11.5 percent.

Available for 2900 yen at Sake Mizuhashi in the Roppongi in Tokyo (tel. 03-5545-5910). May also be found in Karuizawa, Nagano at Au Depart.
For more information, see the website.

Nagomi Vineyard Grasshopper 2019

This is yet another small winery with a great story.  Owner/winemaker Mr. Ike (no published first name!) is only in his second year of winemaking – and appears to have thrown away the book on how to make wine – if he ever read it. Grasshopper is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling that clocks in at 13 percent alcohol. It is an “orange” colored wine created by fermenting the wine with the skin and seeds of the Sauvignon Blanc grape and is replete with flavors of fruits like lemon, pear, and pineapple; herbs like coriander; and spices like cinnamon and cloves. Ike-san says (and I agree) that it goes well with spicy Indian food, but also recommends that you drink it like a Mojito with ice and mint! 

And what about the name Grasshopper? Mr. Ike claims that he named the wine not for the “insect” but as a reference to the Japanese word “bata” – which generally means “grasshopper” but also is “slang” in the Kansai (Western Japan) dialect to describe something that is a “fake”: the wine is not really a Sauvignon Blanc since it is a blend.  Notice as well the bottle cap rather than the “traditional” cork or cap screw.  Whatever the case, you will enjoy this wine and it is people and stories like this that portend an interesting future for Nagano wines.

Available for 2200 yen at Sake Mizuhashi in the Roppongi in Tokyo (tel. 03-5545-5910). May also be found in Karuizawa, Nagano at Au Depart.
For more information, see the website. And for more on the backstory of this wine (in Japanese) see here.

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