March 2021 Recommendations

Recently, we have been featuring boutique winemakers in Nagano spurred on by our local wine shop, Yorozuya, which takes pride in finding new wine makers and showcasing their products.  But for this month, we decided to circle back and look at what three winemakers we have visited and written about previously are doing. What we found is that the three winemakers that we “liked” in the past are now creating wine that we really “like.” It is as if a corner has been turned—and much more quickly than we had expected.  

Reflecting this momentum, we are reviewing three wines below rather than our usual limit of two.

Azumino Sauvignon Blanc 2019   

The Azumino Winery can be found in the foothills of the Japanese Alps close by the town of Shiojiri. The winery was opened in 2007 by Kashiyama Industries, a firm involved in the semiconductor industry, which had bought the property from a local company that made fruit juice, wine, beer, and yoghurt on the property. Kashiyama decided to concentrate on wine contracting with local farmers for grapes and bringing in an outside winemaker, Akira Kato. To keep the project solvent, they built a visitor’s center, a restaurant and a “wine garden” to cater to wine tourism.  

Nearly 15 years later, Azumino Winery produces a range of wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. We have visited the winery several times, but less to enjoy the wines (which were generally acceptable yet not memorable) than to take in the beautiful setting. But we decided to give the Sauvignon Blanc 2019 a try when we found a bottle at Yorozuya and saw that it had received a Bronze Medal in the 2020 Japan Wine Competition. The recognition is well deserved. The Sauvignon Blanc is pleasantly aromatic with the flavor of peach and floral colorings reminiscent of a white Sancerre. Interestingly, these flavors continue rather than yielding to the minerally finish that is found in most Japanese Sauvignon Blanc wines. But we approve of this departure from the usual standard and sense that many Japanese who favor a softer, more gentle wine will agree. Overall a very good wine at a good price and one that underscores the growing competitiveness and maturity of the wine scene in Japan. Alcohol was in line with Japanese Sauvignon Blanc’s at 12 percent.

Available online for 2750 yen here.

ALPS Winery Musee du Vin Maestro Syrah 2019   

Like the Sauvignon Blanc grape, we have often remarked that Syrah is also a grape that does well in Japan. This may seem a bit paradoxical in that Japan’s climate while hot is far more humid than the areas of France, Australia and the United States that are known for producing excellent Syrah. But what makes the Syrah produced in Nagano interesting is that it lacks the high alcoholic content and sometimes jammy flavor of the Syrah produced elsewhere. This wine has body, but it is not heavy. The spice and pepper are present yet restrained and the wine is consequently both refreshing and very drinkable. For this reason, we believe that Japan might become better known for its unique tasting Syrah wines rather than for the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wine, which continue to comprise the bulk of red wine produced in Japan.  Alcohol at 12 percent is characteristic of Japanese Syrah wines. And the price is a great bargain for a nice red wine.

Available online for 2760 yen here.

Funky Chateau Pinot Gris 2019   

We have written about this winery before, introducing two of their Merlots. We also have a bottle of their 2018 Pinot Noir teed up for a review next month. Be assured that we are not on the “payroll”—it is just that we agree with wine critic and Nagano wine enthusiast, Jaime Goode, that Funky Chateau may be the best “little winery” in the prefecture. Winemaker and chief “bottle washer” Toyohiko Kanahashi hit a home run again with a Pinot Gris varietal wine that is rarely available in Japan. Hence our eagerness to try it when we came across a bottle at Yorozuya. The wine did not disappoint. It has a beautiful golden color and flavors of pears and apples. Its sweetness is more restrained than its counterparts from the Alsace region and is closer to the Oregon version of a Pinot Gris. Serve it quite well chilled. Alcohol is 12.2 percent.

Available online for 3850 yen here.

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