The snow is already falling in our corner of Nagano and we are busy with preparation for the winter season. Our home is just 30 minutes outside of Nagano city, but we are located on the slopes of Mount Kurohime and caught between Mount Myoko and highlands of the Tokagushi and Shiga Kogen that serve to funnel the cold snowy weather from the Sea of Japan, which is just 30 kilometers to the northwest. The result is over three meters of snowfall each year and some of the best skiing in Japan (and for that matter Asia).
During the past few months, we have been quite open in expressing our skepticism regarding the future of the Merlot grape in Japan. But, of course, there are few things better than drinking a velvety, fruity Merlot while sitting in front of a warm stove on a cold early winter evening. So, it is not surprising that we took a chance on two Merlots that we encountered during a recent visit to our favorite wine store, Yorozuya, which is located just down the street from Kurohime Station.
This was not really a complete “roll of the dice”. Our interest was piqued when we happened by chance upon a bottle of a 2018 Merlot Ai from the Votano Winery. You may recall that we reviewed favorably a Syrah from this winery in October. Moreover, our first introduction to Nagano wines came several years before with a bottle of 2014 Merlot Ai from the Votano Winery. It was delicious and opened our minds (and our wallet) to learning more about the wines in our home prefecture. We bought the 2018 vintage to see if it was indeed as good as we remembered the 2014 to be.
The second bottle that we are reviewing also supports the case for taking another look at Nagano Merlots. This wine is the first vintage from a winery started by Kosei Ajimura, who formerly was the winemaker for Chateau Mercian, one of the top three wineries in Japan. Ajimura recently retired from Chateau Mercian and bought a few hectares of land along the Narai River in Shiojiri City and close by the Votano Winery. His mission is to make Merlot wines and the “buzz” has been that his first offering holds real promise.
As we were doing some background research on these wines, we came across a website run by a wine shop in Shiojiri called “Wine Shop Fun” (you can’t make this up). Here is the link.
While the name may be a bit off-putting to those who take wine seriously, the content on the site is a very useful introduction to the local wines made in the Kikyogahara wine district centered around the Narai River in Shiojiri City as well as other Nagano wines. The Nagano winery map on the site (see here) also serves as a web portal for many of the smaller wine makers in the prefecture.
The “Wine Shop Fun” site sells wines from Nagano prefecture and elsewhere in and out of Japan. They poll their customers annually regarding the Nagano wine that they like best. This year’s top 12 can be found here. Not surprisingly, the wines that we review below are included in the list.
Votano Merlot Ai 2018
This wine is not simply promising. At the price point at which it is offered, you can say that it has “arrived.” The color is a bright red and the nose displays an enveloping sweetness that signals that something delicious is on the way. The taste does not disappoint. It is a savory mix of red currants and blackberries reinforced by an alcohol level of 13.5 percent – and it all comes together in a smooth, silky finish that invites you to drink more and more. After some earlier missteps that we have chronicled elsewhere, winemaker Mitsuhiro Tsubota appears to have hit his stride and provides us with a glimpse of what a Japanese Merlot can be. This wine deserves a place at your holiday table. Your guests will be pleased with both the wine and the story behind it.
You can read more about the Votano Winery in an article written by English wine critic Jamie Goode, who scored the 2016 version of the Merlot Ai at 94/100. See here.
Available online from Wine Shop Fun
Price: 5000 yen
Domaine Kosei Merlot 2019
This wine is an experiment and an experience all in one. The color is a beautiful, deep red. The nose is sweet and inviting. The flavors do not disappoint and deepen as the wine warms in the glass. We counted nutmeg, cinnamon, and a touch of caramel — flavors not often found in a Japanese Merlot. These are nicely balanced by a refreshing acidity and 12.5 percent alcohol level.
Still, Nagano was hit by a succession of powerful typhoons during the 2019 harvest period and Ajimura acknowledges that it was a labor of love to select from the damaged harvest the grapes for this wine. Overall, he has done a good job in fashioning a Merlot that holds the promise of much better to come. We will be keeping an eye on this winery — and you should too.
The wine is sold out online, but check availability at the winery (0263-50-7922)
Price: 4250 yen