We are on the verge of Fall and the harvest season in Nagano. Jim is looking forward to joining in the picking and sorting of the grapes at the nearby San Cousair winery later this month. The weather was quite wet and cloudy during September and the vineyard manager, Makoto Tsuchiya, is a bit anxious if the rains continue through October. We are keeping our fingers crossed. San Cousair has had good luck with the white wines (see our July 2019 review of the “Nagano Chardonnay 2018”) that they make, but the reds more than occasionally have disappointed due to overlap of “fall rainy season” and “typhoon season” in the weeks leading up to harvest.
Yet producing reliably good red wines is not a problem limited to San Cousair. Rather it is perhaps the largest challenge that the wine industry in the prefecture faces. We have touched on this point many times over the past few years. But a recent farewell visit to Nagano of some good friends living in Tokyo, who are quite knowledgeable about wines, offered us the opportunity to benchmark where wine makers in Nagano are on this journey.
Our friends will be leaving Japan after many years and returning to their home in the Virginia wine country, just down the road from one of our favorite wineries. See here.
To mark their departure, Jim organized a private tasting over a dinner of spicy chicken salad and grilled chicken legs with a diverse group of six Nagano red wines priced from 2600 yen to 8000 yen and one wine from Hokkaido that topped the charts at 15,000 yen.
We structured the tasting around a checklist of questions — many issues that we have commented on in this blog over the years. These included:
1) Is there a future for the Merlot grape in Nagano given the weather issues leading up to the harvest – or is this a problem that can be addressed through more experience, more attention to blending and the segregation of the best grapes with the goal of producing memorable wines at (maybe necessarily) higher price points?
2) Is there a role for Japanese varietals like Muscat Bailey A and Black Queen in the prefecture’s wine portfolio – or are these grapes too jammy and sweet to complement a Japanese meal or compete with better balanced foreign wines from Europe, the United States, and Australia that are readily available and often quite inexpensive?
3) Is it time for the Nagano growers to give more serious consideration to the potential of the Syrah grape within the prefecture’s wine portfolio? This skips over the problems that plague the still widely planted Merlot (the Syrah grape does much better in Nagano’s cool and wet climate) and produces a spicy flavorful wine at very competitive prices.
4) Conversely, is it time for Nagano winemakers to reconsider their investment in Pinot Noir? This is the “holy grail” for many in the prefecture, who see it as the perfect red wine to complement Japanese dishes. But what should a good Japanese Pinot Noir taste like; what should it cost; and where is the best Pinot Noir made in Japan?
Below are our tasting notes and some thoughts on the questions posed above. We did not come to any firm conclusions – we need to drink more! But sampling this diverse range of wines highlighted the opportunities and challenges facing Nagano winemakers.
Chateau Mercian Mariko Merlot 2017
This may be the best, reasonably priced Merlot made in Nagano. The wine tastes of dried red fruit and has a nicely concentrated flavor. Special care was taken in the growing and selection of the grapes to avoid the vegetative scent that mars so many Merlots in Nagano. This is reflected in the 14 percent alcohol content, affirming that the grapes used were fully ripe – most Merlots made in Nagano average between 11 and 12.5 percent (this is not California or Australia!). The wine has a nice rich color and a reserved aroma that carries over into a finish supported by decent tannins.
Chateau Mercian is one of three national winemakers operating in Nagano prefecture. The company has recently opened a vineyard in the Chikumagawa district of the prefecture, where they planted a range of European varietals that they make into wine at their main facility in the neighboring prefecture of Yamanashi.
Available online at the Winery
Price: 4400 yen
Funky Chateau Sangiovese 2018
There is not a lot of Sangiovese grown in Nagano – and maybe more should be. This wine sports a vibrant red color, fragrant nose and a taste of currants and ripe red fruit. The wine has nicely balanced acidity and a delightful freshness that makes it excellent for informal events or dinners organized around poultry or fish. The alcohol level at 12 percent is an appropriately moderate level for this grape and you will want to have a second glass and more.
We have liked wines produced by Funky Chateau (as well as its quirky name) since we first encountered it. The winery is owned by an older couple who moved to Nagano after retiring early from careers in the music business and the medical field, bought some land, and have made the investments required to produce good wine. Jaime Goode has called Funky Chateau the best boutique winery in Nagano. See here.
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Price: 4400 yen
Votano Winery Syrah 2019
The wine is a deep red color with flavors of sweet, dried fruit (think currants and cherries) intermixed with peppers and cinnamon. The sweetness is balanced by good levels of acidity and nicely developed tannins, which support a finish that is deep and satisfying. This is by any measure the best Syrah that we have experienced from Japanese winemakers. The alcohol is 13 percent.
One caution: Votano is a very small winery (just a bit more than 3 acres) located in the Shiojiri area on the banks of the Narai River, whose gravelly mineral soil is well suited for the cultivation of Syrah and other flavorful red wines. However, we have generally stayed away from its wines because of quality issues related to oxidation that we (and earlier UK wine critic Jaime Goode) experienced a few years back. But this Syrah suggests that the problem has been resolved and it gives us a strong incentive to take a second look at some of their other offerings. See here.
Available online at the Winery
Price: 4000 yen
Estate Goichi Syrah 2017
This is another very nice Syrah wine, which is also produced along the banks of the Narai River in Shiojiri City. The wine has a deep ruby color and a simple nose with a hint of spice and peppercorns. It is medium in body with a clean yet fruity finish. The alcohol is 12 percent. While this Syrah is not in the same league as the Votano offering, it is considerably less expensive and a wine that can go well with pairings such as a creamy pasta or an afternoon of cheese sampling.
Taken together with another quite good Syrah produced from grapes grown along the Narai River by the Shiojiri-based ALPS Winery, this further reinforces our view that the Syrah grape has a future in Nagano. See here.
Jaime Goode, who visited the Goichi Winery in March 2021 and sampled the 2016 Syrah (90/100) and the 2018 Syrah (92/100), was equally impressed with the quality of the Syrah wines being made in Nagano. See here.
Available online from the Winery
Price: 2700 yen
ALPS Winery Muscat Bailey A 2018 Late Harvest
This wine has a moody purple color, a “candy-sweet” nose, and flavors associated with strawberries, cherries, and hint of cinnamon due to the relatively high levels of an aromatic compound called furaneol in the grapes. There is an explosion of flavors on the tongue, but there is a correspondingly large drop off at the finish related to the characteristic weak tannin structure of the wine.
This said, the ALPS winery has done a good job “civilizing” this difficult grape and has produced a wine, which is quite enjoyable through careful grape selection and laying up the wine for a period of time to even out its sometimes off-putting “jammy” character. The alcohol is 12.5 percent.
Jim is not a great fan of Muscat Bailey A, but it is part of Japan’s wine history and deserves to be included in any tasting of Japanese “reds”. It is a Japanese variant developed by Kawakami Zenbei in the 1920’s through combining American Bailey, German Hamburg Muscat and native Japanese grapes. The goal was to develop a variant that budded in late Spring (to avoid the frosts) and matured early enough to escape the autumnal rains. The grape’s thick skin also makes it resistant to fungal diseases endemic to Japan’s often humid climate.
Most growers in Nagano have produced Muscat Bailey A at one time or another and Suntory’s Iwanohara Winery, just across the border from Nagano in Niigata, focuses its production on Muscat Bailey A and a few other Japanese variants. From our perspective, we see the future of this variant as a grape to be blended with Nagano Merlot, with each varietal providing what the other lacks. There are already many excellent attempts to do this with the Kido Winery’s simply titled “Rouge” being the current best of breed. See: https://friendsofnaganowine.com/2021/05/14/may-2021-recommendations/
Price: 2600 yen
Inishie no Sato Winery Kuniko Cuvee 2018
This is a rare for Nagano, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend that pushes all the buttons. The color is a brilliant ruby red that sparkles in the glass and has a vivid sweetness that fills the mouth and tantalizes the nose. The flavors are deep cherry leavened with hints of blackberry. The finish is both smooth, deep, and buoyed by ample tannins, which will further develop. The alcohol is 13.5 percent. This is a wine that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best wines produced in California in the $80 to $100 range – and is an extraordinary testimony as to the progress being made in Nagano as a wine producing region in Japan.
Even more extraordinary is the back story. This wine is made by Inishie no Sato, a vineyard with a five-year history owned by Masahiro Inagaki, who until recently also ran the well-known Brasserie du Vin restaurant in Shiojiri city. This is a small boutique winery, which earlier produced an interesting blend of Chardonnay and Kerner grapes, that we also liked a lot. Production was just 265 bottles (one barrel) and was used at the restaurant and sold through a limited number of retail outlets. See here.
The Kuniko Cuvee builds on this pattern. This time, Inagaki made four barrels with limited distribution. We got bottle 979 out of 1000 bottles. The wine is dedicated to his wife, Kuniko. So, this is less a “business” than a “passion”. We were lucky to get the bottle through our favorite wine store, Yorozuya and found it to be excellent wine — further evidence that a group of highly capable (and passionate) wine makers are emerging in Nagano.
Check with the Winery re availability
Price: 8000 yen
Domaine Takahiko Nanatsu Mori Pinot Noir 2019
By both reputation and now personal experience, this wine represents the best of Japanese Pinot Noir. It has a rich ruby color and a sweet, floral nose that beckons without being overwhelming. The flavors are sweet black cherries with a hint of strawberry and tart raspberries. Tannins are light as expected, but the wine is full bodied and lingers pleasantly on the palate. The acidity is just right and the alcohol is 12 percent. It is perfect to kick off the evening, but can linger until desert.
We have often remarked that producing a good Pinot Noir has become a bit of an obsession for Nagano winemakers. But the weather conditions in the prefecture and the delicate constitution of this grape have frustrated even some of the most experienced winemakers in the prefecture, including Akihiko Soga, the owner of the Obuse Winery, arguably the best winery large or small in the prefecture. See here.
It is thus richly ironic that the Domaine Takahiko Nanatsu Mori Pinot Noir, which is widely regarded in and out of Japan as the best of the Pinots produced here, is made in Hokkaiko by Akihiko’s brother, Takahiko, the owner of Domaine Takahiko. The younger Soga left Nagano to grow Pinot Noir in Hokkaido, believing that the climate on Japan’s large and northernmost island is cooler, drier, and thus more friendly to the Pinot Noir grape. The jury may still be out on this, but Takahiko’s wine makes a strong statement.
Another factor that has contributed to Takahiko’s success is that his winery operates at scale, producing a healthy 9000 bottles of Pinot Noir annually that he sells exclusively through selected retail outlets. It is a business model that makes sense. Our favorite local wine shop, Yorozuya, received a few bottles and we purchased one at 11,000 yen – not cheap but a price reflecting the scarcity and quality of this wine.
Availability and Cost: recent sales on Yahoo Auction have pegged this wine for as high as 27,000 yen a bottle (it is likely cheaper at retail!)
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