September 2021 Recommendations

September and October are not surprisingly the best time for wines in Nagano. Why – because it is harvest season. And normally we would be gearing up to visit some of our favorite wineries to help with the picking and the sorting of the grapes as well as joining the picnics in the vineyards and sampling some of the just released 2020 wines. This year, however, not unlike last year, our direct engagement with the winemakers has been limited due to another spike in COVID infections in Japan, this time linked to the Delta variant. However, like last year, Jim is again looking forward to spending a few days in the fields at the neighborhood San Cousair winery harvesting Merlot and Chardonnay grapes for their premium wine selections. We will have pictures and a full report in our November notes.

Over the past few months, we have introduced you to some boutique wineries in Nagano that are sprouting up all over the prefecture like the proverbial mushrooms. And we have been pleasantly surprised by their quality and inventiveness while continually disappointed by the lack of availability for their wines. The new guys on the block are well “new” – and it is no surprise that it will take perhaps five to ten years before they operate at scale and can produce and deliver wines at a competitive price point. We have followed this process in our home area of Maryland and Virginia where prices have steadily gone down even as availability and quality have dramatically improved.

So, for this edition, we have decided to undertake part one of a multi-month reportage on the big three wineries in Nagano, Suntory, Chateau Mercian, and Manns Wine, sampling their products and assaying them on price, availability, and quality. We will be testing the hypothesis that the road ahead for Japanese wines could resemble the journey that Japanese whiskeys have been on for the past few decades. 

The argument is that Japanese whiskey makers have concentrated on the high end in bringing their goods to foreign markets– exporting whiskeys like Hibiki that can sell for hundreds of dollars and leveraging Japan’s reputation for quality to establish a beach head. Of course, Suntory and Nikka, the major whiskey distilleries, also make a range of products targeting the domestic market (yes, Japanese drink A LOT of whiskey), but where they make their money and have built their reputation is in selling quality whiskies that increasingly (apologies to the Scots and the Americans) have become the world standard.

We are starting the series with Manns Wine, which is owned by the large food products company Kikkoman and has been making wines since 1962 at its winery in Yamanashi Prefecture. Manns was initially known for its wines made from a local Japanese grape varietal named Koshu. But, when the company expanded its operations to neighboring Nagano prefecture in the early 1970s, it also began to produce a wider variety of wines including from European varietals, such as Merlot and Chardonnay.  These wines were recognized at international competitions throughout the 1990’s and into the 2000’s.  

Today, Manns has packaged its European style wines under the Solaris brand (launched 20 years ago) with prices that start at 4000 yen and can go as high as 22,000 yen a bottle. We would have loved to have sampled the latter, which is a Bordeaux blend marketed under the name Solaris Magnifica and was served to Donald Trump when he visited Japan in 2018 – but we prudently decided to start our journey with the less costly but nonetheless quality 4000 to 5500 yen tier of Solaris wines. 

We were inspired to do so by reviews posted by UK wine writer Jaime Goode, who visited the Manns Winery in 2018 and was impressed with the more affordable wines in the Solaris lineup, particularly the 2016 Shinano Riesling (90/100) and the 2017 Shinshu Komoro Chardonnay (92/100).  See here.

You can find and order the entire line up of Manns Solaris wines here.

Manns Winery Solaris Shinshu Chardonnay Barrel Aged 2018

Aged in French oak, this wine has an inviting yet delicate perfume and a refined dryness with citrus and mango flavors playing gently in the background. The finish is smooth and resonant of barrel ageing, but not overwhelmed by it. Less exuberant but more stylish than the Chardonnays that the smaller Nagano winemakers are producing, this wine is an excellent value.

Available from the winery online
Price: 5500 yen

Manns Winery Solaris Shinano Riesling 2018

You don’t find many Rieslings in Nagano, but it is a grape that deserves more attention from local growers since the weather and terrain in the prefecture is very much like that of the Alsace region, which is well known for its Riesling wines. The wine is fruity and fresh tasting rather than “sweet,” so it goes well with Japanese foods. The color is light gold, the nose inviting and the finish smooth. The price point while a bit high is comparable to Riesling imports from Europe and the United States of the same quality.  Manns knows it is on to something since it also markets three other Rieslings under the Solaris label that range in price from 3800 yen to 6600 yen.

Available from the winery online
Price:  4100 yen

Manns Winery Solaris Juventa Rouge 2017

This is a very nice red wine that serves as the gateway to the more expensive range of reds that Manns produces. It is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that has it all:  a nice deep red color, a full inviting nose, a delightful taste of red fruits (not too jammy!), and a lovely finish. The wine is still young and can be cellared. But already you can sense that it is well-made and that the tannins hold future promise. Manns has done a good job managing climate-related challenges that all too often spoil red wines in Japan. The wine is priced somewhat above what other producers in Nagano are asking for their “Bordeaux” reds and is well worth the difference. Alcohol content is 13 percent.

Available from the winery online
Price: 4400 yen

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