Summer has come to Nagano – and we are enjoying a succession of warm, sunny days ranging up to 30 degrees Celsius and dropping in the evening to the low 20’s – an ideal diurnal range for Syrah grapes. As we noted before, the climate in Nagano is friendly to the Syrah grape and growers here are increasingly featuring this wine in their portfolios. Another reason may be that the wine produced from the Syrah grape in Nagano agrees better with Japanese sensibilities. It is light, fruity and hints of Japan’s local pepper, “sansho”. The contrast with California, Spain and Australian Shiraz wines can be quite stark. The fruit tastes fresh and the “spice” consequently lingers but does not overwhelm. For these reasons we are putting forward two Syrah wines as our choice for summer outings. That said, they are very different wines with contrasting stories. Indeed, we might borrow from Dickens to call this review a “Tale of Two Syrah!” One wine is perhaps the classic example of what to expect from a Nagano Syrah; the second is a tale of how to turn misfortune into an opportunity to highlight the skill and imagination of the winemaker.
ALPS Winery Musee du Vin Maestro Syrah 2019
We have been a fan of the ALPS Winery Syrah since we first tasted the 2017 vintage and love the price point at 2700 yen. The wine has body without being heavy and is suffused with the kind of spicy, peppery flavor that we expect from a good Syrah. Its clean finish encourages you to pour that second glass and even one more – quite a contrast to its Australian and California counterparts, which can be quite filling.
Japanese growers are beginning to look for opportunities to export even in small lots to build the visibility of their wine globally. The emphasis generally has been on Merlots and Chardonnay. These are good wines and the more expensive ones (at 10,000 yen and over) can compete on even terms with quality foreign wines. But this is a very small slice of the market.
Japan needs to produce more wines at a price and quality point that can appeal to a broader range of wine lovers outside Japan. We submit that this Syrah has potential. This wine has both the quality, taste, and price point to make it attractive outside Japan. Moreover, ALPS winery has the equipment and capital base to make wines for the general consumer at scale. It’s lower cost wines (some made in Australia under a licensing agreement) can be found at supermarkets throughout Japan.
Not surprisingly, ALPS winery CEO, Manabu Yagazaki, is a savvy businessman, who studied at Oregon State University. Should he decide to take this and future vintages of his Syrah wine to the US, we think that there will be a lot of interest in a spicy wine that tickles the tongue without the fruit and alcoholic overhang of California Syrahs.
Price: 2700 yen
Available through the winery’s online store.
Obuse Winery Syrah et Pinot Noir Claret 2019
The Obuse Winery has a history of producing excellent Syrahs (see our December 2019 review of the 2017 Clos de Cacteau). But the 2019 vintage is different in some fundamental ways.
There are two main areas in Nagano that grow Syrah grapes. One is the Kiyogahara District located in the suburbs of Shiojiri City and close by the foothills of the Japan Alps. The other is the Chikumagawa district where vineyards can be found near the Chikumagawa, a river which gives the district its name, and extend all the way up the highland areas that are backdrop to Nagano City.
The Chikugumagawa (River of a Thousand Bends) has over the millennia created a huge flood plain known for its apple and grape cultivation. In normal years, the rich and well-irrigated soil produces bumper crops. But in the summer of 2019, disaster struck as a huge typhoon, which normally sticks close to the Pacific Coast of Japan, came barreling west and devastated the Chikumagawa basin. Emblematic was the destruction of a Shinkansen train yard where a large number of Japan’s fastest and most famous trains were submerged up to their roofs.
The famous Obuse Winery survived the flood, but the vineyards were severely damaged – among them the 2019 Syrah crop. It would have been easy to write this off to insurance, but winemaker, Akihiko Soga, does not throw in the towel so easily.
Instead, Soga-san took the bold move to blend his Syrah and Pinot Noir grapes. Blending Syrah and Pinot Noir grapes to produce more balanced and drinkable wines used to be extensively practiced in Australia, although less and less so these days. We have not come across it before in Japan, but Soga-san’s blending of these two grapes has produced an excellent bottle that brings out the best aspects of each. Pinot Noir, as we have commented many times, is notoriously difficult to grow in Japan. And, almost inevitably, it comes out of the barrel a thin shade of pink, tastes a bit syrupy and can have a quite unpleasant and abrupt finish.
Japan-made Syrah (and particularly those produced by Soga-san) do not suffer from these handicaps. And we discovered that when Syrah is mixed with Pinot (the blend ratio was not specified on the bottle), it can be transformative. The taste is neither a Syrah nor a Pinot but something in between. The wine sparkles; the nose is sweet yet restrained; the body has presence, but is not overwhelming—and the usual “peppers” in the Syrah are now more muted but pleasingly still present in the finish.
This wine is an accident of nature, but it might also be the start of a trend. Japanese winemakers desperately want to make a red wine which will not overwhelm the delicate flavors of Japanese foods. Obviously, that is not a Cabernet, a Merlot, or a Syrah. The Pinot Noir has always seemed the most likely candidate, but it is tough to grow in the Japanese climate and Japanese winemakers have yet to find a way to make up for its resulting deficiencies. Until now perhaps—thanks to a once in a generation flood.
Price: 2420 yen (clearly a flood sale price!)
Available at the Obuse Winery (no online sales); for a list of retail outlets see here.
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