July 2021 Recommendations

Probably one of the largest obstacles to the growth of the Nagano wine industry is the challenge of producing wine at scale with the consequent ability to bring it to the local market at prices competitive with producers from Australia, California, Europe, and others. While tariffs remain on imported wines, they are slated to decrease over the next several years and the top level for the United States and Europe is currently just 15 percent and Australia only 4 percent.   

Frankly, Nagano winemakers at this stage of their development need protection. This is a big statement since years backed Jim as a U.S. diplomat lobbied the Japanese government to reduce its tariffs on California wines. But the tariff was largely in place to protect Japanese makers of shochu and sake – not local wines.

So absent tariff protections, how to compete on price with foreign competitors, who also produce very good wine? One tax break that Nagano wine producers have been taking advantage of is the “hometown” tax donation program, which allows taxpayers in large urban areas like Tokyo and Osaka to direct a portion of their local municipal tax bill to cities and towns in rural areas and to receive local products, including wine, as a “gift” from the receiving local government body in return.  

The program brings small winemakers in Nagano national attention and allows this new audience try out new wines and ease their tax burden at the same time.   For a more detailed explanation, see here.

But on to the wine. With summer upon us, we are introducing two Rose wines that are just perfect for patio cocktails or a picnic brunch. They are also part of a continuing trend among Nagano winemakers to move away from Merlot and Chardonnay that have dominated the wine menu in the prefecture and elsewhere in Japan for so long. Now, there is a new emphasis on blending different grapes and in producing lighter wines with a neat balance between the acidity and sweetness.  The two wines, which we introduce below, are from very new winemakers who clearly fall under this category.

Harayama Noen and Gakufarm & Winery Wines

Harayama Noen “O-Sampo” Rose 2020

We always note that you simply cannot make up the stories behind so many of the Nagano wines. Here is another one.  

The label features a red headed Japanese pheasant and the wine’s name “o-sampo” (“taking a stroll”)  refers to how the local birds have a habit of “strolling” around the 3 acres devoted to wine at the Harayama Farm (Noen). Harayama grows grapes in the mountain overlooking Lake Suwa in the southwestern corner of Nagano. But the farm is better known for its Fuji apples.  

Another relevant fact is that while Harayama grows grapes, it does not make the wine that it markets under its name. This job is subcontracted to a wine consulting group called Mother Vines, which operates its own winemaking facility in Nagano.  

We have remarked before on how a wine-making service industry is developing to support the smaller, boutique winemakers – and this is another trend that bodes well for the future of Nagano wines. Just like with rice cultivation, which depends heavily on the Japan Agriculture Cooperative Association (Nokyo) for financing, seeds, fertilizer, planting and harvesting equipment rental, and purchase of the harvest at a set price, winemaking in Japan could importantly benefit from greater attention from the government and private industry, especially in the provision of top line equipment for making and bottling wines. 

So, is the wine any good? Emphatically yes! Although it is not specified on the bottle, this Rose is likely a blend of Pinot Gris and Merlot grapes, both of which are grown at the Harayama farm. The color is a bright ruby red and the taste tart, fresh and lively. In some respect, this wine is closer to a Beaujolais Nouveau than to the classic image of a Rose, such as the White Zinfandels that are popular in the United States. At 12 percent alcohol, you can have some lunch and not worry about your afternoon appointments – although it is so drinkable you may find yourself finishing the bottle.

Price 2600 yen
Available online here or through furusato nozei here. The latter requires that 9000 yen of local taxes owed to Tokyo (for example) be transferred to the Hara Town municipality. In return, you receive a bottle of “O-Sampo”. Do the math – this is a real bargain!

Gaku Farm and Winery Kar Rose Pinot Gris 2020

Like the Harayama winery, the Gaku Farm and Winery is a newcomer to the Nagano wine scene. The farm just received its license to make wine in September of last year and the young owner is a graduate of the Shiojiri Wine Academy, a technical school established in 2014 with municipal support to provide training for the next generation of winemakers. 

Shiojiri city’s support for winemakers is no accident. Although the Chikumagawa wine area located around Nagano and Ueda cities has recently grown in prominence, Shiojiri takes pride in its long history as a center for wine in Japan. In the prewar era, Suntory produced Akadama, the first widely popular Japanese-made wine, at a plant that it opened in Shiojiri in 1936. The three-day Shiojiri wine festival held annually in May is among the largest in Japan.

Many prominent wineries are located in Shiojiri, including Suntory, Chateau Mercia, ALPS, Izutsu, and Goichi. Gaku Farms is the newest entrant and is still experimenting with what grapes will work best, planting Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot along with apples (to use for cider to make some money!) The operation is (accurately) self-described as a “garage winery.”  

But the odds favor success. A big reason is that Gaku Farm and Winery owns land in the Iwadenohara district of Shiojiri City. This is widely considered among the best wine growing areas of Nagano. That is why we are not surprised that Gaku Farm and Winery’s first wine is delicious! The wine is a beautiful salmon color with flavors of peach, lemon, and herbs. It also had unusual depth for a Rose and its 13 percent alcohol is augmented by a sweet and satisfying finish. This Rose can be invited to dinner!

This said, the wine was a bit closed when first opened and the winemaker recommends letting it sit for day or two after uncorking for the flavors to fully develop. We let the wine sit in the fridge after opening for a couple of hours and were happy from the first taste – and the wine was even better on the next day.  

The wine was just released at the start of June and is already sold out on the winery’s online site. The wine is not yet registered for the “furusato nozei” program, but you will likely be able to find a bottle or two at one of the larger wine merchants in Tokyo or Nagano.

Price 3080 yen
Contact the winery here for a list of retail outlet as well as to see if they have a few extra bottles that they might be able to sell to a motivated buyer.

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