Spring has a AT LAST come to Nagano — even so it has been among the wettest and coldest on record. Our Nagano home sits 800 meters above sea level and there are still traces of snow in the shadows and much more on the tops of the 2500 meter plus mountains that surround us. Nonetheless, we recently hosted a small tasting of Nagano wines at our hilltop gazebo for our neighbors and have another one scheduled for early June. Truth be said, the main drink in these parts of rural Nagano remains sake and the more potent “shochu” (Japanese vodka). But there is also a growing appreciation of the potential for growing wine grapes as a cash crop for sale to local wineries that are mainly run by emigres from Tokyo.
This month ( as promised) we are introducing a few among the many wines (both domestic and foreign) made and marketed by Suntory, which is the largest alcoholic beverage company in Japan and arguably the best whisky maker globally. At the same time, from an historical perspective, Suntory got its starts as an importer of foreign wines to Japan and later was the first Japanese company to produce wine in Japan. For these reasons, it is not surprising that Suntory operates a winery in Nagano prefecture (Shiojiri Winery) as well as in nearby Yamanashi Prefecture (Tomi no Oka Winery) and is among the largest producers of wine in Japan.
English wine critic Jaime Goode visited the Shiojiri Winery in 2020:
We last reviewed wines from Suntory when we held a tasting of Suntory wines in Tokyo in November 2019. See here. We were quite happy with the 2018 Shinshu Chardonnay and the 2015 Shiojiri Merlot. Not surprisingly, we loved the Shiojiri Iwanohara Merlot 2012, which then sold for 8000 yen.
Below we offer our comments on three wines made by Suntory: two from grapes grown in Nagano prefecture and one from vines in Yamanashi prefecture. The Shiojiri winery is again the source for the Merlot and the Yamanashi winery for an interesting “Rouge” blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc grapes. We also went back and tasted the 2018 Shinshu Chardonnay, which is a rare blend of Nagano grown Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, overseen by Suntory’s Yamanashi winery.
Suntory Tomi no Oka Winery Rouge 2017
This is a special wine bringing together the respective strengths of Merlot (48%), Cabernet Sauvignon (22%), Petit Verdot (15%), and Cabernet Franc (15%) grapes. It is a set of choices made by Suntory’s winemakers to get the right balance of acidity, tannins, sugar and alcohol that make for a great wine at the right price. The Rouge 2017 sports the flavors of dark cherries, strawberries and floral notes, such as violets. The wine is fruity but restrained: a medium bodied wine with soft but still present tannins. Alcohol is 12.5 percent, quite a pleasing respite from the super-fueled reds from the sun-drenched fields of Australia and California. Yet, there is no hint of the vegetative under ripe flavors that plague so many Japanese reds. Although a bit beyond our 4000 yen cap, this wine is a bargain. The label confirms that all the grapes were grown in Yamanashi, but does not specify the municipality. We suspect that the fruit is from the mountainous border region that Yamanashi shares with Nagano prefecture.
Price: 4400 yen; available on Amazon with Prime Shipping
Suntory Japan Premium Shinshu Chardonnay 2018
This wine is another blend — but one that is atypical not just for Japan but globally. The blend is 93 percent Chardonnay and just 7 percent Sauvignon Blanc. As a result, this wine is alive with flavors, careening from citrus like lemons and pineapple to a grassy, mineral taste clearly associated with the Sauvignon Blanc grape. The wine has a beautiful gold color and closes with a soft sweetness on the palate. Chardonnays in Japan are chronically marred by under ripe grapes, because of the untimely rains that disrupt the October harvest period. Elsewhere, this problem is managed by mixing the Chardonnay with the Semillon grape. Typically in Japan, the solution is “oaking” wine, but this often results in an overly cloying vanilla, woody flavor. Adding the Sauvignon Blanc goes in the opposite direction, inputting a “sour” flavor to the mix — that at least in this case adds a pleasing touch to the final product.
Price: (a very reasonable) 3000 yen: available on Amazon with Prime shipping.
Suntory Japan Premium Shiojiri Merlot 2017
This wine hints at the potential for Japanese Merlots. It is not overwhelmingly fruity (perceived as sweet) as Merlots produced in Chile and California increasingly are. But it will bring to your table the scent of blueberries and cassis along with the flavors of tobacco and smoke that keep a lid on any “sweetness”. Tannins are present but soft and the finish is subtle without being overly thin or weak. For at least some who have grown tired of the heavy, often overly sweet, and highly alcoholic Merlots from elsewhere, this wine may work for you. Moreover, reflecting the high standards that Suntory brings to its wines — this one is also not plagued by the vegetative woes of too many Nagano Merlots.
Price: 3960 yen; available on Amazon with Prime shipping
Suntory “One Wine” : In researching (and drinking deeply) for this review, we decided that it was a good opportunity to take up a new Suntory product, called “One Wine”. This is a four-pack of canned wines that sells on Amazon for 2000 yen and includes four different wines (Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc). Each can is 250ml, which is more or less two full glasses of wine. Since a full bottle weighs in at 750ml, this is a very competitive price. The surprise is that the wine is NOT Japanese but rather imported from the Pays d’Oc region of southern France. It is highly alcoholic: the Merlot, Pinot, and the Chardonnay come in at 14.5 percent, although the Sauvignon Blanc is a more modest at 12.5 percent. The latter three are certain to cause quite a “buzz.” While the cans are convenient, we recommend that you pour these wines and drink them from a glass — they really open up and the flavor and structure of the wines is surprisingly good.
Whatever one might think about the quality of “canned wine”, it is a great vehicle for introducing a new generation to the “joys of the grape” and reminds Jim of the “ferment” in the United States during the late 1960’s when California wine first became the drink of choice for the “baby boomers”. That was a time when every college dorm party served Gallo wines in paper cups. Of course, everyone graduated to better products as they and the industry “matured”. But, similarly, growing the real “first” generation of wine drinkers remains the biggest challenges for Japan’s winemakers. And, we are happy to say, that Nagano winemakers have gotten “religion” on this. We currently have on order the first wave of Nagano “canned wines” and will feature them in next month’s blog!