January 2022 Recommendations

We have finally reached the start of another year—with no end in sight for the pandemic. In fact, the outlook for 2022 is quite concerning: many (most?) of us will get sick and not a few will die. Not a way to start a wine column and not necessarily reflective of the continuing energy and vitality of the wine scene in Nagano prefecture. Winery visits have been curtailed and some of the big makers, e.g. Chateau Mercian, Suntory and Manns have cut back on releasing new wines, preferring to wait until people return to restaurants or entertain at home with a bottle(s) of wine.

But readers of this blog will note that while the large players appear to have pulled back, smaller, boutique wineries continue to bring new and interesting wines to the market. Yet another example of this are the wines that we will introduce this month. They come from a winery that is introducing its first vintage to the local market. This trend probably reflects the environment five years back when the prefecture welcomed a wave of “exiles” from Tokyo looking to escape the corporate “rat race” and enticed by the prospective “joys” of making a living in the mountains of one of Japan’s most beautiful prefectures.

Over the past few years, we have chronicled the arrival of many of these new wineries with the help of Yoruzuya, our local wine shop, which has helped many of these newcomers to connect with wine consumers. This month, along with the New Year, we again “herald” the arrival of a new winery to the Nagano scene, “Viniqrobe”.  This boutique winery, located in the burgeoning Chikumagawa wine district produced its first vintage in 2018, a Pinot Noir – and introduced a second Pinot and a Merlot in 2019.  We review the 2019 wines below and find them promising.  

Viniqrobe was opened by a older couple named Yasuhiro and Hiroko Kurata, who left Tokyo jobs in banking and the pharmaceutical industry in 2016 to make wines on two hectares of land in Takayama Village, one of the prime areas for viticulture in the Chikumagawa District. Their goal is to produce an excellent Japanese Pinot Noir, but they are also planting Merlot. The couple are great lovers of ballet and have incorporated the dance into the design of their wine labels, which feature pictures of famous Japanese ballerina, Emi Watanabe, who is with the Tokyo Ballet Company. The Kurata’s explain that the pictures underscore the link they see between “wine” and “ballet”, noting that both are imports to Japan and the challenge is to take these art forms and infuse them with a Japanese sensibility. Pretty heady stuff!   

All of this, once again, brings into focus the continuing “ferment” in Nagano’s wine industry and Japan more widely that is producing a range of interesting wines by a new group of wine makers, who often successfully substitute enthusiasm for experience. Even more SURPRISING, Viniqrobe’s focus is on RED wines – Pinot Noir and Merlot!  

The wines are available directly from the winery, online at yet another Nagano-based online wine site, Imadaya or from the Tomi Wine Chapel.  The latter is neither a church nor a wedding hall, but rather a restaurant located in the town of Tomi, which fashions itself as the center of the Chikumagawa wine district. The “chapel” also operates an online store that has an interesting, affordable, and mostly complete list of local wines for sale. See here.

Viniqrobe Winery, Chikumagawa, Nagano

Viniqrobe Winery Pinot Noir 2019

This is the second Pinot for Viniqrobe and as noted above it shows real promise. The wine has a deep ruby color and the scent of vanilla and roses. The former comes from being laid up in oak barrels for a year.  As the wine warms, the flavor expands in the mouth and becomes more complex, with a deepening sweetness balanced on the palate with a slight minerally touch. The alcohol content is 12 percent and there is no off-putting “jammy” consistency or vegetative aftertaste that spoils so many Nagano Pinots. Production is just 2500 bottles and the price is in line with Pinots of this quality produced in Nagano and elsewhere in Japan. A lot of care and ambition went into producing this wine. It deserves your attention.

Price:  4100 yen

Available online from the Tomi Wine Chapel or directly from the winery

Viniqrobe Wines featuring Emi Watanabe

Viniqrobe Winery Merlot 2019

The wine has flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg along with ripe, red fruits. The nose is inviting and the color a darkish purple. The alcohol content is 12 percent. Like the Pinot, it has escaped the “green” flavors” that often plague Nagano reds. Rather there is lingering sweetness with a hint of complexity and depth on the palate. Tannins while somewhat weak are still present and could help the wine develop further complexity. So, there is still a road to travel but this is an amazing wine for a first vintage. At 3000 yen a bottle, it is also a very good value. Since most of the vineyard’s two hectares are given over to the Pinot grape, the Kurata’s blended their own Merlot grapes with those purchased from other cultivators in the Takayama area for this first offering. This is not an uncommon practice, but it gives the winemakers less control over the final product. We sense that the “success” of this first Merlot will encourage them to continue production and perhaps over time expand the area given to growing the Merlot grape. And for us, it is evidence that Pinots and Merlot may indeed have a future in the prefecture.

Price:  3000 yen

Available online and from the winery

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