It is Spring on the calendar. but it is still winter in Nagano. We received close to three meters of snow this season — the largest amount of snowfall in at least a decade. Yes, it was great for skiing — but less than you might think since nearly daily snow storms made visibility difficult and posed a challenge for the resort operators to keep the slopes open and well groomed. So our default solution was to stay close to the fireplace well into March and sample some new Nagano wines.
Mariko and I visited the Chateau Mercian Mariko Vineyard winery last month and commented on a number of their wines in our previous posting. The winey located near Ueda City is a must stop for wine-lovers coming to Nagano and the view from the tasting room overlooking the vineyards is impressive. Yet we were a bit disappointed in the group of 2019 and 2020 wines that we sampled and wondered if the hot summer and wet autumn weather during this period might be one reason — with another being that, while the vineyards were planted in 2003, winemaking operations at the Mariko Vineyard facility only started up in 2019. Previous to that, grapes harvested at the Mariko Vineyard were trucked to Chateau Mercian’s winery in nearby Yamanashi prefecture to be processed.
So we went looking online for Chateau Mercian wines from the Mariko Vineyard released before the opening of the Mariko VIneyard winery. We found a 2018 Mariko Syrah that came with highly positive reviews. We also bought a bottle of the Mariko Vineyard 2019 Chardonnay, which had disappointed us when we tasted it at the winery, and a bottle of the Mariko Vineyard 2017 Merlot, which we had reviewed previously in October 2021 and liked — we wanted to be sure that we had gotten this right (spoiler alert: we did!)
2018 Chateau Mercian Syrah
This Syrah has a beautiful and inviting nose. The color is a lovely rich purple and the wine does not belie this promise. The taste is a brilliant mixture of dark, sweet fruit amplified and balanced by a spicy hint of white pepper. There are also flavors of cherries, bitter chocolate and the vanilla associated with oak barreling. The complex, intermingling of flavors bespeaks the experience of the Chateau Mercian team in crafting this wine. Notes from the winery indicate that only grapes from the Mariko vineyard were used in the wine and that the diurnal temperature gap in the period before the harvest ensured good levels of sugar for the grapes (this is reflected in a nice level of acidity and the 13 percent alcohol content). Yet, while we liked this wine very much, we would still give the edge to a Votano 2019 Syrah that we reviewed in October 2021 and which is nearly 1000 yen cheaper. However, like the Votano, this Chateau Mercian Syrah is head and shoulders above Syrah produced elsewhere in the prefecture at this point– suggesting both the promise and the challenges ahead if the Syrah grape is to emerge as the representative red grape wine for Nagano.
Price: 5616 yen; available online through Rakuten
2017 Chateau Mercian Merlot
We have long been in search of a delicious Nagano Merlot at a price point under 5000 yen. We have frequently been disappointed because of the nagging “vegetable” flavor that bedevils Nagano Merlots, which almost invariably are tripped up by rainy, cool weather during the critical late September/ early October harvest time. We liked this wine the first time we sampled it last October and we still do. It has a rich deep color and flavors of cherries and black currant that are well supported by good acidity and a surprising 14 percent alcohol. The wine also boasts a velvety smoothness and a hint of chocolate that are boosted on the palate by noticeably strong tannins. It is the complete package without a hint of the vegetative, earthy scent that is so characteristic of poorly made Japanese Merlots. The one sticking point is the price, which is still a bit high, but we have not enjoyed a better Japanese Merlot since we tasted the 8000 yen Inishie no Ie Cuvee Kuniko last October.
Price: 4895 yen; available online through Amazon Japan
2020 Chateau Mercian Chardonnay
It is surprisingly hard to find a good Chardonnay in Japan. The problem as with many of Japan’s red wines is the rainy conditions in the month before the harvest — just at the time the grapes need warm days and cool nights to retain their acidity and boost their sugar. If either is deficient, the wine tastes a bit listless and sour. Definitely not what you want in a Chardonnay that is supposed to be fruity amidst flavors like vanilla, almonds and buttery from time spent in oak barrels. We were disappointed when we drank this wine in February at the winery, but came away a bit more impressed when we enjoyed it this time at home. The nose was light but not weak (we might call it “refined”). The color while thin was nevertheless gold-enough. At 12.5 percent, the alcohol level is typical for a Japanese Chardonnay. The wine was oak barreled and we are happy to report that unlike so many other Japanese Chardonnays the effect is pleasing rather than overbearing and adds a subtle smoothness to the wine. But the ending disappointed. We were not looking for the admittedly modest flavors to carry through entirely to the finish — but we had hoped for more than we found. The taste on the palate was flat and a bit flabby, not all that different from what we experienced at the winey and likely due as we noted last month to the weather near the time of the harvest which put a cap on acidity levels of the grapes when they were harvested. The winemaking team at Chateau Mercian is well aware of the problem, but weather conditions in 2019 and 2020 were very challenging and we are now seeing how they affected the character of the wines produced in these years. All this said, the wine is not overpriced and we recommend that you will find this Chardonnay an enjoyable addition to a casual meal with family and friends.
Price 3000 yen; available online through Amazon Japan