June 2021 Recommendations

Yorozuya, our favorite wine shop, has surprised us again with wines from smaller wineries that underscore the continuing growth, diversity, and vitality of the wine industry in Nagano. Reflecting this, we will also be providing links to two new online shop sites that were recently launched in the prefecture and feature Nagano wines exclusively, providing a platform for smaller wine makers to reach out to a broader slice of the wine-drinking market and to serve as an entry portal for, particularly, young people in Japan who are increasingly interested in visiting Nagano and other wine destinations in Japan to taste the local product. This is an important demographic shift from an older generation that enjoys wine but sees it as a “foreign” (French, Australian, American) product.

Nagomi Vineyards Pinot Noir 2019

Nagomi Pinot Noir

We last looked at the Nagomi Winery and its iconoclastic owner, Toshihiro Ike, in a December 2020 review of the winery’s “Grasshopper” Wine, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling orange wine. We loved the Grasshopper so we grabbed the chance to try out a bottle of the Nagomi Winery’s 2019 Pinot Noir, expecting a bust and wondering why a winemaker so new to the game would try to make a Pinot Noir, a wine that is the HOLY GRAIL for Japanese winemakers. Readers of this blog know that Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grow in Japan’s wet climate and Japanese winemakers’ efforts have, generally, fallen short. So, we were intrigued when the peripatetic Jaime Goode visited the Nagomi Winery in July 2020 and gave the 2019 Pinot a 90/100 rating.

Consequently, we had to try it when we recently came across a bottle at Yorozuya. To be blunt, every Pinot we have tried in Nagano has been weakly colored and thin on flavor. Further, Ike-san did not give his own wine a ringing endorsement by noting in his “bottle notes” that it tastes better on the “second day”. But the 13 percent alcohol on the label provided some assurance that the grapes were ripe and intimated that this Pinot Noir might be different. And indeed, Jaime was right! The wine has an inviting red color, a delicious nose, flavors of dried fruit and a lingering yet clean finish (that continues to be good on the second day!).  

This said, at 3600 yen, the price is a bit on the high side, although Pinot Noirs are always somewhat pricey in Japan. A small compensation is that the label is among the most intriguing and classy ones in Japan – check out the picture.  

A final note:  the winery reports on its website that it will be releasing a carbonic maceration version soon which should bring out even more fruity flavors. Jaime was not overly impressed with the 2018 version he tasted (86/100), but we are not ready to count out the inventive (and determined) Ike-san and will report back when we have a chance to taste it.

Price: 3960 yen
Available online or call the winery at 0268-80-9100.

Domaine Hiroki Sauvignon Blanc 2020

Domaine Hiroki Sauvignon Blanc

Domaine Hiroki has only been in operation since 2018. The winery is a father-son project and the first winery to open in the Ikeda township, which is located in the Northern Alps area of Nagano. The son, Hiroki Yokoyama, was a university teacher who returned home in 2009 to help with the family farm, which supplied grapes to the large nearby Azumino winery. During the ensuing decade, Hiroki began to experiment making wine on his own. Apart from the Sauvignon Blanc, the winery also makes a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Chardonnay from their own grapes and a Ryugan from fruit produced by local farmers. Total planned production is 15,000 bottles – not bad for a small startup operation.  

This Sauvignon Blanc is unusually good for such a small and largely untested winery – validating our thinking that this grape is quite well suited to the Nagano terroir. The color of the wine was good, the flavor pleasantly fruity and the flinty finish gave the wine a nice balance. The winery has a shop to purchase wine on premise and operates a café. The backdrop of the Northern Alps is a spectacular complement to the wine – making the winery a real destination.  To top it off, Ikeda has been voted among the most beautiful small towns in Japan.  

Lastly, wine is sometimes only as good as you can promote and position it in an always crowded market. Hiroki seems to be genius at this. Our Google searches produced more mentions of Domaine Hiroki than any other Nagano winery of this size, including this video.

Price: 2970 yen
Available online or available at the winery at 0261-25-0024.

Hiroki-san of Domaine Hiroki

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