Harvest in Nagano is beginning to wind down and the summits of the 1500-2000 meters mountains that surround our home on the slopes of Mount Kurohime are already showing some snow. Typically, we can expect the first major snowfall by the end of this month and the close-by ski areas start operations in the first and second weeks of December.
The weather during the October harvest this season was, as is often the case in the area, problematic. We joined the harvest at St. Cousair, spending four days at the winery located in the nearby town of Iizuna at an altitude of 600 meters. This is not high enough yet for snow, but the location like most areas of Nagano is often caught in the cross currents of weather generated by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Japan to the east. The fall rainy season, which starts in mid-September, extended well into October this year and resulted in the postponement and cancellation of the days set by the winery staff for the harvest.
Still, we were able to put in four days of work picking Merlot and Chardonnay grapes – including a special early morning (4AM) harvest of a select group of Chardonnay grapes from vines that are more than 25 years old in the Saint Cousair Winery’s Oiri Vineyard.
Here are some pictures from the harvest that provide both a view of and some background on the winery and its operations:
1. The wine trellis are equipped with plastic rain guards to protect the grapes from the typhoons that visit in July and August as well as the damp weather of the June and September rainy seasons.
2. The workforce for the harvest largely comes from the staff that work not at the winery but in other parts of the business. St. Cousair is mainly a food processing enterprise making jams, pasta sauces and salad dressings which it markets through a network of over 100 outlet stores throughout Japan. The planted area of the winery itself comprises just over 20 acres and production is 12,000 bottles annually. Two restaurants and a wedding chapel are co-located with the winery.
3. The machinery used in the harvesting is limited to the 600cc light mini trucks (colored white) that are omnipresent in Japanese agriculture. Note that they are small and nimble enough to drive between the rows of vines to collect the trays of harvested grapes.
4. Given its limited available acreage, St. Cousair also purchases grapes locally as well from growers outside the prefecture. One morning, as we assembled outside the building where the wine is made before heading out to the Oiri field, located about 5kms away from the main site, we watched a crew unload grapes from Hokkaido.
St. Cousair makes a wide range of wines at a variety of price points, but it also does a thriving business in apple cider (Iizuna Town where the winery is located may grow the finest apples in Japan) and has also ventured into sake and shochu. Here are our thoughts on two of their best wines:
St. Cousair Chardonnay Vielles Vignes 2019
The start is amazing: beautiful golden color and a deep, fragrant nose. The wine has a persistent sweetness reminiscent of a Semillon blend, but this is well balanced by the characteristic fruitiness of Chardonnay and 12% alcohol. The wine was laid up in oak barrels and a delightful scent of vanilla shines through. The grapes in the wine are truly “vielles” – all harvested from vines more than 25 years old in the St. Cousair Oiri vineyard. Jaime Goode visited the winery in 2019 and tasted the 2018 vintage in the barrel, giving the wine a potential rating of 91/100. We think that the 2019 is even better. The winery made only ten barrels of this wine. That’s 2271 bottles. We bought bottle number 1866 in late September. Better hurry!
Available online and at the Winery
Price: 5000 yen
See Jaime Goode’s review:
St. Cousair Rouge 2017
The rainy and unusually cold weather we experienced during the Merlot grape harvest in the first part of October reminded us again of the difficulties associated with producing reliably good red wines in Nagano – particularly varietals such as Merlot and Pinot Noir that ripen late. The St. Cousair team is aware of this challenge and has opted over the past few years to produce a “rouge” blend of Cabernet Franc (42%), Pinot Noir (29% and Merlot (9%), betting that that the sum of the parts will result in a better wine than the separate components. We think that this is the right approach.
The 2017 Rouge has a nice color and an adequate nose. The fruit is a bit weak, but a delightful cherry flavor still shines through. However, the wine stumbles at the finish line. The tannins are weak and the palate consequently disappointingly flat. Jaime Goode had the same reaction when he sampled this wine in the barrel in 2019, giving it 88 out of 100 points. Alcohol content is 12%, suggesting that the grapes were not fully ripe at harvesting, a fact possibly confirmed by a slightly “green” off-flavor that both Jaime and we encountered.
Available online and at the Winery
Price: 5000 yen